After a long and leisurely breakfast this morning with Peter Lupu, Mike Valle, and Richard Klaus, I stopped by Bookman's and got lucky. I found a used copy of Milton Steinberg's 1939 novel, As a Driven Leaf. The title is from Job 13: 24-25: "Wherefore hidest Thou Thy face. . . Wilt thou harass a driven leaf?" I learned about this novel from Joseph Epstein's recent WSJ piece, Balancing Faith and Reason.
And then I got lucky in the CD aisle, stumbling upon the soundtrack to Inside Llewyn Davis. I listened to it on the drive home with raindrops on the windshield and tears in my eyes. Here are some tunes from it:
John Williams' 1965 novel Stoner with its overcast feel proved to be a perfect read for a deep and dark December. An underappreciated and unfortunately titled masterpiece, it is about one William Stoner, an obscure professor of English at the University of Missouri, Columbia. At its publication in '65 it pretty much fell still-born from the press, but the years have been kind to it and it is now valued as the great novel that it is. Unfortunately, Williams, who died in 1994, did not live to see its success.
(4.) John Williams, Stoner (1965). Based on the life of J. V. Cunningham and especially his disastrous marriage to Barbara Gibbs. Easily the best novel ever written about the determined renunciations and quiet joys of the scholarly life. Stoner suffers reversal after reversal—a bad marriage, persecution at the hands of his department chair, the forced breakup of a brief and fulfilling love affair with a younger scholar—but he endures because of two things: his love for his daughter, who wants nothing more than to spend time with her father while he writes his scholarship, and his work on the English Renaissance. His end is tragic, but Stoner does not experience it that way. A genuinely unforgettable reading experience.
"Genuinely unforgettable" sounds like hype, but this is one novel I, for one, will not forget. For more by Myers on Stoner, see here.
My copy of the novel sports a blurb by Myers: "It will remind you of why you started reading novels: to get inside the mystery of other people's lives." Yes.
What is the difference between the philosopher and the novelist? Perhaps this: the philosopher tries but fails to articulate the Impersonal Ineffable; the novelist tries but fails to articulate the Personal Ineffable, the 'inside' of a person's life, the felt quality of it. In both cases, there is the attempt to speak the Unspeakable.
Two very different uses of language and thought in a reach for what is Unreachable by those routes. And perhaps by any route.
Put that it in your pipe, John Anderson. And smoke it.
4. Note the poetically pleasing addition by the author of his name to his title.
5. The well-made hard-bound, acquired via Amazon, is a Mount Mary College (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) library discard. There is no evidence that it is a second copy. How naive of me to think that libraries ought to be permanent repositories of high culture. But the folly of reliably liberal librarians redounds to the benefit of the bookman.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books, tr. R. J. Hollingdale, New York Review Books, 1990, p. 204, Notebook K, Aph. #84:
To call a proposition into question all that is needed is very often merely to fail to understand it. Certain gentlemen have been all too ready to reverse this maxim, and to assert that we fail to understand their propositions if we call them into question.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books, tr. R. J. Hollingdale, New York Review Books, 1990, p. 162, Notebook J, Aph. #168, hyperlink added!
As soon as he receives a little applause many a writer believes that the world is interested in everything about him. The play-scribbler Kotzebue even thinks himself justified in telling the public that he administered a clister [an enema] to his dying wife.
I own the 1953 first-edition Ace Books paperback depicted to the left. Price in 1953: 60 cents. I must have acquired my copy in the late '60s or early '70s for not much more than that. Originally published under the pen-name of William Lee, the "Old Bull Lee" of Kerouac's On the Road. The foreword is by Carl Solomon. According to the Wikipedia article just referenced, Solomon is also responsible for the Publisher's Note which serves in part as an apologia for the "sordid" narrative about to be put before the reader.
Remember, this is 1953, a time and place light-years from the present, culturally speaking. What would be celebrated as 'transgressive' today by our benighted cultural elites, was recognized then as trash whose publication had to be justified:
We realized that here was a document which could forearm the public more effectively than anything yet printed about the drug menace. The picture it paints of a sordid netherworld was all the more horrifying for being so authentic in language and point of view. For the protection of the reader, we have inserted occasional parenthetical notes to indicate where the author clearly departs from accepted medical fact or makes other unsubstantiated statements in an effort to justify his actions.
London Ed, taking a break from logic and philosophy of language, is now reading Burroughs:
I finished Junky, which was entertaining, and now onto Naked Lunch, which is terrible. Meanwhile, some extracts from Junky below, which challenge the idea that Burroughs was some kind of ‘gay writer’. Obviously he was gay, although he predates that term, and would have called himself ‘queer’. He alludes to his queerness in the book, but I find the passages below difficult to explain. They are surely not intended as ironic, there is a real hatred, possibly self-hatred there. I can find no critical study of Burroughs that mentions these passages.
The only equivalent I can think of for that period is Raymond Chandler. Supposedly Chandler was a repressed homosexual. But there is the same ‘homophobic’ streak in his work. You recall the Geiger character in The Big Sleep, who is characterised as both homosexual and unpleasant. Chandler writes somewhere about there being ‘no iron’ in a ‘fairy's’ punch, and about the vicious and unpleasant way that a ‘fairy party’ can end. I will try and find the quotes. In the same place I also have quotes from William Cobbett (supposed father of English socialism) which are virulently anti-semitic.
Burroughs quotations culled by Ed:
The hipster-bebop junkies never showed at 103rd Street. The 103rd Street boys were all old timers -- thin, sallow faces; bitter, twisted mouths; stiff-fingered, stylized gestures. (There is a junk gesture that marks the junky like the limp wrist marks the fag: the hand swings out from the elbow stiff-fingered, palm up.)
In the French Quarter there are several queer bars so full every night the fags spill out on to the sidewalk. A room full of fags gives me the horrors. They jerk around like puppets on invisible strings, galvanized into hideous activity that is the negation of everything living and spontaneous. The live human being has moved out of these bodies long ago. But something moved in when the original tenant moved out. Fags are ventriloquists' dummies who have moved in and taken over the ventriloquist. The dummy sits in a queer bar nursing his beer, and uncontrollably yapping out of a rigid doll face.
Occasionally, you find intact personalities in a queer bar, but fags set the tone of these joints, and it always brings me down to go into a queer bar. The bringdown piles up. After my first week in a new town I have had about all I can take of these joints, so my bar business goes somewhere else, generally to a bar in or near Skid Row.
I ordered a drink at the bar and looked around. Three Mexican fags were posturing in front of the jukebox. One of them slithered over to where I was standing, with the stylized gestures of a temple dancer, and asked for a cigarette. There was something archaic in the stylized movements, a depraved animal grace at once beautiful and repulsive. 1 could see him moving in the light of campfires, the ambiguous gestures fading out into the dark. Sodomy is as old as the human species. One of the fags was sitting in a booth by the jukebox, perfectly immobile with a stupid animal serenity.
I looked around and noticed how the hips stood out as a special group, like the fags who were posturing and screeching in one comer of the yard. The junkies were grouped together, talking and passing the junkie gesture back and forth, the arm swinging out from the elbow palm up, a gesture of separateness and special communion like the limp wrist of the fag.
I’m reading more than at almost any time in my life but spending less time reading online. The two facts have a common source – a festering impatience with shoddy writing. My literary gut, when young, was goat-like -- tough and indiscriminate. I read everything remotely of interest and felt compelled to finish every book I started. This makes sense: Everything was new, and how could I knowledgeably sift wheat from chaff without first milling, baking and ingesting? Literary prejudice, in a healthy reader, intensifies with age. I know and trust my tastes, and no longer need to read William Burroughs to figure out he wrote sadistic trash.
I've read my fair share of Burroughs and I concur that his stuff is trash: Junkie, Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, Exterminator. All in my library. But there is a place for literary trash. It has its uses as do the pathologist's slides and samples. But put on your mental gloves before handling the stuff.
Kerouac alone of the Beat Triumvirate moves me, though I surely don't consider him a great writer. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there really shouldn't be any university courses on Kerouac or Dylan or other culturally influential recent figures since their material is easily accessible and easily understandable. Universities ought not pander. They should remain -- or rather return to being -- institutions whose sacred task is the preservation and transmission of HIGH culture, great culture, culture which is not easily understood and requires expert guidance to penetrate and appreciate. The thought is extended in Inheritance and Appropriation.
We associate pieties with sentimental religion, holy medals and such, when in fact they often arrive in the form of sociopathic earnestness. Take Williams Burroughs – not the sort of fellow you would have wanted living next door. Burroughs was a deviant by any standard – a thief, a wife-killer, an Olympic-class drug abuser, a sexual pervert and a man who seldom failed to indulge any hateful impulse that entered the black hole of his egotism. As a writer, Burroughs celebrated his pathologies and never transcended his pulp origins – all good career moves in an age when professors and critics use “transgressive” as an accolade.
I am nearing the end of Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square, and yesterday I began John Fante's Full of Life. D. G. Myers' review begins and ends like this:
In the Manchester Guardian’s book blog, Rob Woodard looks back at John Fante’s Ask the Dust, a 1939 novel which has been described as a masterpiece. Everyone seems quite taken by the novel’s influence upon Charles Bukowski, who called Fante “my God” and was single-handedly responsible for getting his work back into print. (The sorry thought that there would have been no Bukowski without Fante is almost enough to make you wish there had been no Fante.) Ask the Dust is the second volume of a trilogy—or perhaps a tetralogy, if his late-in-life novel Dreams from Bunker Hill, dictated to his wife four decades later, after Fante had gone blind from diabetes, is included—of vaguely proletarian novels about a second-generation immigrant’s struggle up from poverty and fight for a piece of the American pie.
[. . .]
Because of its artless candor, Full of Life is the most probing account I have ever read of the religious return. Fante is honest about his doubts, but he is equally honest about the highs and lows, the joy and tedium, of Catholicism. He does not withdraw from the religious experience into a well-armored skepticism. As a consequence, he finds himself surprisingly moved to tears by the ceremony in which Joyce is accepted into the Church.
The novel eschews any ambition to be “profound.” Its surface appears to be shallow, quick-paced, dialogic rather than discursive. It does not worry theological problems; it strokes the ordinary nap of domestic intimacy. But it also knows the depth of intimacy which religious feeling opens up and reveals. There are other reasons to prize the novel. Italian-American novelists like Mario Puzo, Hamilton Basso, and Paul Gallico may have achieved a larger readership, and poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Diane di Prima may have received more respectful critical attention, but no one has ever improved upon Fante’s portrait of the tension between two generations of Italian-Americans and the mixed-blessing debt that the second owes the first. Precisely because of its humor and lightness of tone, Full of Life is that unexpected thing—not The Power and the Glory, but a great religious novel that appears out of nowhere, while you thought you were watching Father Knows Best or I Love Lucy.
I headed over to D. G. Myers' high-level literary weblog this afternoon only to find that its penultimate post, dated 22 July, was the last by Myers. The final entry, dated 29 September, by his sister-in-law, records his death.
And then I recalled that Myers had written some friendly but trenchant critiques of my amateur forays into his field. A search revealed that Myers had written five detailed entries addressing posts of mine. Did I ever thank him? If memory serves, I never did, and I deeply regret that now. I probably wasn't aware of some of them.
Jack Kerouac in a letter from 17 January 1962: "Everybody is making money off my ideas, like those "Route 66" TV producers, everybody except me . . . ." (Selected Letters 1957-1969, ed, Charters, Viking 1999, p. 326; see also p. 461 and pp. 301-302.) Here is the Nelson Riddle theme music from the TV series. And here is part of an episode from the series which ran from 1960-1964. George Maharis bears a striking resemblance to Jack, wouldn't you say? And notice Maharis is riding shotgun. Kerouac wasn't a driver. Neal Cassady was the driver.
Now dig Bobby Troup. And if that's too cool for you, here is Depeche Mode. Chuck Berry, the RollingStones, Dr. Feelgood, and others have covered the tune.
Flannery O'Connor, "Good Country People," in A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Harcourt, 1955, p. 185:
One day Mrs. Hopewell had picked up one of the books the girl had just put down and opening it at random, she read, "Science, on the other hand, has to assert its soberness and seriousness afresh and declare that it is concerned solely with what-is. Nothing -- how can that be anything but a horror and a phantasm? If science is right, then one thing stands firm: science wishes to know nothing of nothing. Such is after all the strictly scientific approach to Nothing. We know it by wishing to know nothing of Nothing." These words had been underlined with a blue pencil and they worked on Mrs. Hopewell like some evil incantation in gibberish. She shut the book quickly and went out of the room as if she were having a chill.
It is for me to know and you to guess: from which famous/notorious essay of Heidegger is Miss O'Connor quoting?
May I offer the following resolution of the paradox? I say that 'purely fictional' does not function as a concept term. Instead, it is ambiguous between two interpretations. On the one hand, it behaves like the pseudo-concept 'inexistent'. To say that Bone is a purely fictional alcoholic is to deny that Bone exists. [BV: Biconditionality seems too strong. If N is a purely fictional F, then N doesn't exist; but if N doesn't exist, it does not follow that N is purely fictional.] The same goes whatever name and concept term we substitute for 'Bone' and 'alcoholic'. This leads us to assert
1. There are no purely fictional items.
On the other hand, I say that 'fictional and 'purely fictional' appear to be concept terms because sentences like
Bone is a purely fictional alcoholic
arise via a surface transformation of
Purely fictionally, Bone is an alcoholic
and inherit their meaning and truth value. We can understand the latter as asserting that
Some work of fiction says that Bone is an alcoholic.
We take this as true, as evidenced by the work of Hamilton, and running the transformation in reverse gets us to
Bone is a purely fictional alcoholic.
Taking 'purely fictional alcoholic' as a predicate, which it superficially resembles, by Existential Generalisation we arrive at
There is some purely fictional alcoholic,
and hence to
2. There are some purely fictional items.
and apparent contradiction with (1).
The idea of a surface transformation may well appear controversial and ad hoc. But the phenomenon occurs with other pseudo-concept terms, notably 'possible'. We have
Bone is a possible alcoholic <---> Possibly, Bone is an alcoholic Bone is a fictional alcoholic <---> Fictionally, Bone is an alcoholic.
On the left we have 'possible' and 'fictional' which look like concept terms but cannot be consistently interpreted as such. On the right we have sentential operators which introduce an element of semantic ascent which is not apparent on the left. It's precisely because 'possible' and 'fictional' involve hidden semantic ascent that they do not work as concept terms.
I am afraid I don't quite understand what David is saying here despite having read it many times. This could be stupidity on my part. But I think we do need to explore his suggestion that there is an equivocation on 'purely fictional items.' Let me begin by listing what we know, or at least reasonably believe, about purely fictional characters.
First of all, we know that George Bone never existed: that follows from his being purely fictional.
Second, we know or at least reasonably believe that Bone is a character created by its author Patrick Hamilton, a character who figures in Hamilton's 1941 novel, Hangover Square. Just as the novel was created by Hamilton, so were the characters in it. Admittedly, this is not self-evident. One might maintain that there are all the fictional characters (and novels, stories, plays, legends, myths, etc.) there might have been and that the novelist or story teller or playwright just picks some of them out of Plato's topos ouranos or Meinong's realm of Aussersein. I find this 'telescope' conception rather less reasonable than the artifact conception according to which Bone and Co. are cultural artifacts of the creative activities of Hamilton and Co. Purely fictional characters are made up, not found or discovered. It is interesting to note that fingere in Latin means to mold, shape, form, while in Italian it means to feign, pretend, dissemble. That comports well with what fiction appears to be. Of course I am not arguing from the etymology of 'fiction.' But if you have etymology on your side, then so much the better.
Now there is a certain tension between the two points I have just made. On the one hand, Bone does not exist. On the other hand, Bone is not nothing. He is an artifact of Hamilton's creativity just as much as the novel itself is in which he figures. How can he not exist but also not be nothing? If he is not nothing, then he exists.
If Bone were to exist, he would be a human person, a concrete item. But there is no such concretum. On the other hand, Bone is not nothing: he is an artifact created by Hamilton over a period of time in the late '30s to early '40s. Since Bone cannot be a concrete artifact -- else Hamilton would be God -- Bone is an abstract artifact. Thus we avoid contradiction. Bone the concretum does not exist while Bone the abstract artifact does. This is one theory one might propose. (Cf. Kripke, van Inwagen, Thomasson, Reicher, et al.)
Note that this solution does not require the postulation of different modes of existence/being. But it does require that one 'countenance' (as Quine would say) abstract objects (in Quine's sense of 'abstract') in addition to concrete objects. It also requires the admission that some abstract objects are contingent and have a beginning in time. The theory avoids Meinongianism but is quasi-Platonic. London Ed needs a stiff drink long about now.
Now let's bring in a third datum. We know that there is a sense in which it is true that Bone is an alcoholic and false that he is a teetotaler. How do we reconcile the truth of 'Bone is an alcoholic' with the truth of 'Bone does not exist'? There is a problem here if we assume the plausible anti-Meinongian principle that, for any x, if x is F, then x exists. (Existence is a necessary condition of property-possession.) To solve the problem we might reach for a story operator. The following dyad is consistent:
3. According to the novel, Bone is an alcoholic
4. Bone does not exist.
From (3) one cannot validily move via the anti-Meinongian principle to 'Bone exists.' But if 'Bone is an alcoholic' is elliptical for (3), then 'Bone is a purely fictional character' is elliptical for
5. According to the novel, Bone is a purely fictional character.
But (5) is false. For according to the novel, Bone is a real man.
The point I am making is that 'Bone is a purely fictional character' is an external sentence, a sentence true in reality outside of any fictional context. By contrast, 'Bone is an alcoholic' is an internal sentence: it is true in the novel but not true in reality outside the novel. If it were true outside the novel, then given the anti-Meinongian principle that nothing can have properties without existing, Bone would exist -- which is false.
I think Brightly and I can agree that a purely fictional man is not a man, and that a purely fictional alcoholic is not an alcoholic. And yet Bone is at least as real as the novel of which he is the main character. After all, there is the character Bone but no character, Son of Bone. In keeping with Brightly's notion that there is an equivocation on 'purely fictional item,' we could say the following. 'Bone' in the internal sentence 'Bone is an alcoholic' doesn't refer to anything, while 'Bone' in the external sentence 'Bone is a purely fictional character' refers to an abstract object.
We can then reconcile (1) and (2) by replacing the original dyad with
1* There are no purely fictional concreta
2* There are some purely fictional abstracta.
The abstract artifact theory allows us to accommodate our three datanic or near-datanic points. The first was that Bone does not exist. We accommodate it by saying that there is no concretum, Bone. The second was that Bone is a creature of a novelist's creativity. We accommodate that by saying that what Hamilton created was the abstract artifact, Bone*, which exists. Bone does not exist, but the abstract surrogate Bone* does. The third point was that there are truths about Bone that nevertheless do not entail his existence. We can accommodate this by saying that while Bone does not exemplify such properties as being human and being an alcoholic, he encodes them. (To employ terminology from Ed Zalta.) This requires a distinction between two different ways for an item to have a property.
I do not endorse the above solution. But I would like to hear why Brightly rejects it, if he does.
Flannery O'Connor died 50 years ago today. About Ayn Rand she has this to say:
I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.
London Ed recommended to me Patrick Hamilton's 1941 booze novel, Hangover Square. It gets off to a slow start, but quickly picks up speed and now has me in its grip. I'm on p. 60. The main character is one George Harvey Bone.
Ed gives this argument in an earlier thread:
(*) Bone, who is depicted by Hamilton as a sad alcoholic, is living in a flat in Earl’s Court.
The argument is that either the predicates ‘is depicted by Hamilton as a sad alcoholic’ and ‘is living in a flat in Earl’s Court’ have no subject, or they have the same subject. Either way, van Inwagen’s theory is wrong.
If they have no subject, then ‘is depicted by Hamilton as a sad alcoholic’ has no subject, but PvI argues that the subject is an abstract object. If they have the same subject, then if the subject of ‘is depicted by Hamilton as a sad alcoholic’ is an abstract object, then so is the subject of ‘is living in a flat in Earl’s Court’, which he also denies.
Either way, his theory cannot explain sentences like the one above.
The first thing I would point out (and this comports somewhat with a comment by David Brightly in the earlier thread) is that (*) can be reasonably parsed as a conjunction, the conjuncts of which belong to different categories of fiction (not fictional) discourse:
(*) Bone is depicted by Hamilton as a sad alcoholic & Bone lives in Earl's Court.
The two different categories are, first, the category of sentences we use when we engage in lit-crit discourse about fictional characters 'from the outside' while yet attending carefully to the 'internal' details of the fictional work. An example of such a sentence would be the following. "George Bone, like Don Birnham of Charles Jackson's 1944 Lost Weekend, have girlfriends, but Netta, the inamorata of the former, is a devil whereas Helen, the beloved of Birnham, is an angel."
Now that sentence I just wrote might be a second-rate bit of lit-crit, but it is a sentence that occurs in neither booze novel, nor is it entirely external to either novel. It is not entirely external because it reports details internal to the novels and it either gets them right or gets them wrong. 'George Bone is a purely fictional character,' by contrast, is an entirely external sentence. That sentence does not occur in the novel, and indeed it cannot occur within the novel (as opposed to within a bit of text preceding the novel proper, or as an authorial aside in a footnote) unless it were put into the mouth of a character. It cannot occur therein, because, within the world of Hangover Square, George Harvey Bone is precisely real, not fictional. As the same goes for Earl's Court, although it is also a real place in London. (One could, I suppose, argue that the Earl's Court of the novel is a fictional Earl's Court and thus distinct from the real-world Earl's Court. Holy moly, this is tricky stuff.)
The second category I mentioned comprises sentences that are either wholly internal to pieces of fiction or sentences that occur in synopses and summaries but could occur internally to pieces of fictions. For example, the second conjunct of (*):
C2. Bone lives in Earl's Court.
(C2) is probably too flat-footed a sentence to occur in a novel as good as Hangover Square, but it could have occurred therein and it could easily figure in a summary of the novel. (C1), however, namely,
C1. Bone is depicted by Hamilton as a sad alcoholic
could not have occurred in Hangover Square.
Now as I understand things, the grammatical subject of a sentence is a linguistic item, a word or a phrase. Thus (C1) and (C2) have the same grammatical subject, namely, the proper name 'Bone.' The grammatical subject is to be distinguished from its extralinguistic referent, if there is one. Call that the real subject. ('Logical subject' doesn't cut it since we do not typically refer to items on the logical plane such as propositions.)
So I take London Ed in his above-quoted animadversion to be referring to the real subjects of (C1) and (C2) when he uses 'subject.' He poses a dilemma for van Inwagen's view. Either the conjuncts have no subject or they have the same subject.
They cannot have no subject on van Inwagen's view because the subject of (C1) is an abstract object. And they cannot have the same subject, because then both conjuncts would have as real subject an abstract object. That cannot be, since on van Inwagen's view, and quite plausibly to boot, the subject of (C2) cannot be an abstract object. No abstract object lives or resides at any particular place. Abstract objects don't hang out or get hung over.
So, Ed concludes, van Inwagen's theory cannot explain (*).
Now my metaphilosophy teaches that no theory is any good on this topic or on any other. The problems of philosophy are most of them genuine, some of them humanly important, but none of them soluble. They are genuine intellectual knots that we cannot untie. That's about as good as it gets when it comes to "nailing my colours to the mast" as Ed demands that I do.
In other words, I am not advocating a particular theory as superior to Ed's, whatever exactly it is. (I am not being 'snarky' to use a Gen-X expression; I really don't know exactly what his theory is.) I don't think that van Inwagen's theory is unproblematic and I am not advocating it.
But I do think that Ed has failed to refute van Inwagen. The reason is because he conflates the two categories of fiction sentences lately distinguished, the category of lit-crit sentences like (C1), and the category of sentences that either do or could occur within pieces of fiction, an example being (C2).
Defending van Inwagen, I reject Ed's disjunction, namely: Either the conjuncts have no subject or they have the same subject. They have neither the same subject nor no subject. One has a subject and the other doesn't. (C1) has as its subject an abstract object and (C2) has as its subject nothing at all.
That's what van Inwagen could say to Ed so as to neutralize Ed's objection.
Inwagen gives persuasive arguments that there is only one sort of existential quantifier, that we cannot quantify over ‘things’ that are in some sense ‘beyond being’, and that ‘exists’ means the same as ‘is’ or ‘has being’. No review of his work would be complete without a careful discussion of these arguments, but as I agree with them, I will not discuss them here.
The problem I want to discuss is with his main thesis. He aims to explain what he calls ‘fictional discourse’, namely discourse like “There are characters in some 19th-century novels who are presented with a greater wealth of physical detail than is any character in any 18th-century novel." Such sentences are true, according to him, but when we translate them into quantifier-variable idiom, we have to use the existential quantifier which, on his view, is equivalent to ‘exists’. This seems to imply that fictional characters like Tom Sawyer and Mr Pickwick exist. Inwagen bites the bullet, and argues that they do exist. They are abstract objects, which exist in exactly the way that numbers exist. So when we say, in a work of literary criticism, that “Mrs Gamp is a character in a novel”, the proper name ‘Mrs Gamp’ refers to an abstract or ‘theoretical’ entity.
BV: I don't think Ed is representing van Inwagen correctly here. Numbers cannot come into being, but it is plausible to hold that fictional characters do. So while fictional characters, for van Inwagen, are abstract entities, he remains noncommittal on the question whether they are abstract artifacts in the way that chess could be thought of as a abstract artifact, or instead abstract non-artifacts like numbers and cognate platonica. See the last paragraph of "Existence, Ontological Commitment, and Fictional Entities."
This leads to the following problem. Inwagen argues that when a sentence like “Tom Sawyer was a boy who grew up along the banks of the Mississippi River in the 1840s” appears in a work of fiction, it is not true. Indeed, it is not even false, since it does not make an assertion at all (Existence, Ontological Commitment, and Fictional Entities, p.148, footnote 15). But when it appears in a work of literary criticism, as ‘literary discourse’, it is true. But if it is true, it seems to imply that there was some individual who is [in] the extension of the property expressed by ‘boy who grew up along the banks of the Mississippi River in the 1840s’, and yet there was no such individual.
Inwagen resolves the problem as follows. Tom Sawyer the fictional character exists, but he does not have the property ‘boy who grew up along the banks of the Mississippi River in the 1840s’. Nor does Mrs. Gamp have properties such as being old, being fat and so on. He concedes that this sounds odd (Creatures of Fiction, p. 304-5), but he argues there is something rather like it in a familiar philosophical doctrine, namely Descartes’ thesis that a person such as Jones is an immaterial substance, and so cannot have properties like ‘being tangible’, ‘weighing 220 lbs’ and so on, but only properties appropriate to immaterial objects, such as ‘thinking about Vienna’, ‘being free from pain’ and so on. Descartes says that Jones bears a relation to the properties on the former list that is not the relation of ‘having’ or ‘exemplifying’ but, rather, the relation of “animating a body” that has or exemplifies the property. We say that Jones is about six feet tall, but we should really say ‘animates a body that is six feet tall’: “what looks like predication in ordinary speech is not always predication”.
Thus when we say that Tom Sawyer is the main character in a well-known book of the same name, we are saying something that is true because the copula ‘is’ signifies the relation of having or exemplifying. But if we say, in literary discourse, that Tom is a boy, or that he is a resident of Mississippi, it is true because the copula signifies a quite different relation, which Inwagen calls ‘holding’.
BV: This is an accurate summary of van Inwagen's position as I understand it.
Bill has already identified some problems with Inwagen’s thesis. For example, he says that when I think of Mrs Gamp, I think of a woman. But according to Inwagen, I am thinking of an abstract or theoretical entity, and no theoretical entity has gender.
I shall not discuss these (although I broadly agree with them), but will mention some further ones.
1. Plot summaries. I discussed plot summaries in a comment to Bill’s post. We have a clear notion of what counts as a ‘correct’ summary. E.g. “Tom Sawyer lives with his Aunt Polly and his half-brother Sid” is correct, “Tom Sawyer lives with his Aunt Polly and his sisters Lizzie, Jane, Kitty, Lydia and Mary” is clearly not. But this notion of ‘correctness’ is close enough to the notion of truth that Inwagen’s theory needs to deal with it. If we assimilate it to Inwagen’s notion of truth in ‘literary discourse’, i.e. if we regard a statement in a plot summary as of the same kind as “Mrs Gamp is a character in a novel”, then we have the problem that plot summaries are written ‘in universe’, and that the names of the characters refer to the characters as characters, and not as abstract theoretical entities. But if we assimilate plot summaries to condensed versions of the original literary work, we have the problem of how they can be ‘correct’ at all. It is fundamental to Inwagen’s account that sentences in a work of fiction do not make assertions at all, and so cannot admit of truth or falsity – or correctness or incorrectness.
BV: Ed's point here seems to be that van Inwagen cannot account for the correctness of plot summaries. It is clear that some summaries are correct or accurate and that some are not. Now a summary of a piece of fiction is either itself a piece of (severely condensed) fiction, in which case it contains sentences that are, on van Inwagen's theory, neither true nor false, or it is not a piece of fiction but a piece of writing containing true sentences about the content of the fictional work being summarized. This disjunction appears to be a dilemma. For on the first disjunct, it is hard to see how a plot summary could be correct or true. But the second disjunct is also unacceptable. For suppose the summary contains the sentence 'Mrs Gamp is a fat old lady.' Then 'Mrs Gamp' in this sentence takes an abstract existent as its referent, an existent that does not HAVE but HOLDs the properties of being fat, being old, and being a lady, when the novel is not about abstract objects at all, but is about concrete objects one of which HAS, but does not HOLD, the properties of being fat, old and a lady.
A very astute criticism that may in the end hit the mark. I don't know.
Suppose I write a three-sentence novella:
It was a dark and rainy night. Shaky Jake, life-long insomniac, awakened from his dogmatic slumbers by the rythm of the rain, and deciding he needed a nightcap, grabbed his flashlight and his raincoat and headed for the Glass Crutch bar and grill, a local watering hole a half a mile from his house. Bellying up to the bar, he said to the 'tender: "One scotch, one bourbon, one beer."
A correct plot summary: An insomniac awakened by the rain goes to a bar for a drink.
An incorrect summary: A philosopher in La Mirada, California, dreaming about the ontological argument, is awakened when an earthquake causes a copy of David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature to fall on his head.
Ed's question is how the first summary can be correct and the second incorrect if fictional sentences 'in universe' as Ed writes, lack truth-values. I am not convinced that there is a problem here. For a summary to be correct it doesn't have to be true of anything; it merely has to reproduce in condensed form the sense of the the piece of fiction summarized. I can take in the sense of a sentence without knowing whether it is true or false. A summary merely boils down the sense of the original.
2. ‘Sincere’ fiction. Not all fiction is ‘insincere’, i.e. knowingly made up. What if a sincere but deluded person writes a long account about characters (angels, spirits etc) and events which were ‘revealed’ to him in a vision? Contra Inwagen, his claims are assertions, and are capable of truth or falsity.
BV: But is this a case of literary fiction? The delusive account is fictional in that it is false, but that might be different use of 'fictional.' Why can't van Inwagen insist that literary fiction is by definition 'insincere' in Ed's sense?
3. Story-relative reference. Any serious account of fiction needs to deal with the way that names in fiction (and empty names generally) are able to identify or individuate within the story by telling the reader which character is being talked about. Inwagen needs to explain how such story-relative reference works, for his theory does not address it. He also has the problem that ‘literary discourse’ also seems to use story-relative reference. Consider the story (A) “A man called Gerald and a boy called Steve were standing by fountain. Steve had a drink”, and the statement (B) “In the second sentence the proper name ‘Steve’ identifies Steve." Statement (B) is true, and so is ‘literary discourse’, according to Inwagen, and so ‘Steve’ in (B) identifies an abstract object. But it clearly ‘refers back’ to the ‘Steve’ in (A). How can a term referring to an abstract object also refer back to a character in a story, when the character is not an abstract object?
BV: Van Inwagen might respond by saying that in (B) ''Steve' identifies Steve only in the sense that 'Steve' in the second sentence has 'Steve' in the first sentence as antecedent. So there is no (extralinguistic) reference at all, and 'Steve' in (B) does not pick out an abstract object.
Note the ambiguity of 'Ed signed his book.' It could mean that Ed signed Ed's book. Or it could mean that Ed signed a book belonging to someone distinct from Ed. (Suppose, while pointing at Tom, I say to Peter, "Ed signed his book.") In the first case, 'his' exercises no (extralinguistic) reference. In the second case it does.
4. The problem is worse in the case of names whose emptiness is in doubt. Suppose I make a reference statement: “Luke 1 v5 refers to Zachary, a high priest at the temple”. Like many characters in the New Testament, we are not certain whether Zachary existed or not. If he did exist, the name in my reference statement refers to him. If not, according to Inwagen, it refers to an abstract object. How can the semantics of the sentence be so utterly different without my knowing? For I don’t know whether Zachary existed or not, and so I don’t know what the semantics of the reference statement is. But surely I do.
BV: I don't think van Inwagen will have any trouble with this objection. Suppose we don't know whether Zachary existed or not. Our not knowing this is not the same as our not knowing whether he is nonfictional or fictional. For we know that the NT is not a work of fiction -- assuming that, necessarily, every work of fiction involves pretence on the part of its author or authors. If we agree that the NT is not a work of fiction and it turns out that Zachary never existed, then van Inwagen can say that no one had all the properties ascribed to Zachary. His theory does not require him to say that 'Zachary' refers to an abstract object.
5. What about statements where we say what the author says? For example “Dickens says that Mrs Gamp is fat”. Inwagen would classify this as literary discourse, but if so, the token of ‘Mrs Gamp’ refers to an abstract object. But Dickens is surely not saying that an abstract object is fat?
The general problem, and here I think I am agreeing with Bill, is that the semantics of proper names as used in fiction (or ‘sincere’ fiction) doesn’t seem to be enormously different from the semantics of the same names as used in ‘literary discourse’. Yet, according to Inwagen, the difference is as enormous as it gets.
My referrers' list points me to this post whence I snagged these two delightful quotations:
The pipe draws wisdom from the lips of the philosopher, and shuts up the mouth of the foolish; it generates a style of conversation, contemplative, thoughtful, benevolent, and unaffected.
William Makepeace Thackeray
A pipe is the fountain of contemplation, the source of pleasure, the companion of the wise; and the man who smokes, thinks like a philosopher and acts like a Samaritan.”
Edward George Bulwer-Lytton
The name 'Bulwer-Lytton' rings a bell doesn't it? You guessed right: it's the same Bulwer-Lytton who penned, in prose of purple, the opening sentence,
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
A post that moves me to find Larkin's Letters to Monica. Kurp quotes Larkin:
I seem to walk on a transparent surface and see beneath me all the bones and wrecks and tentacles that will eventually claim me: in other words, old age, incapacity, loneliness, death of others & myself . . . .
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book II, sec. 92, tr. Kaufmann:
Good prose is written only face to face with poetry. For it is an uninterrupted, well-mannered war with poetry: all of its attractions depend on the way in which poetry is continually avoided and contradicted.
More than one. Here is one. And as old Chisholm used to say, you are not philosophizing unless you have a puzzle. So try on this aporetic triad for size:
1. Purely fictional objects do not exist.
2. There are true sentences about purely fictional objects, e.g., 'Sherlock Holmes is a detective' and 'Sherlock Holmes is purely fictional.'
3. If a sentence of the form Fa is true, then there exists an x such that 'a' refers to x.
The triad is logically inconsistent: any two limbs entail the negation of the remaining one. So the limbs cannot all be true despite the considerable plausibility of each. So one of the propositions must be rejected. But the first is nonnegotiable since it is true by definition. The leaves two options: reject (2) or reject (3).
Suppose we reject (2). One way to do this is by supplying a paraphrase in which the apparent reference to the nonexistent is replaced by real reference to the existent. For example, the apparent reference to Sherlock, who does not exist, is replaced by real reference to a story in which he figures, a story that, of course, exists. The elliptical approach is one way of implementing this paraphrastic strategy. Accordingly,
4. Sherlock Holmes is a detective
5. Sherlock Holmes is fictional
are elliptical for, respectively,
6. In the Conan Doyle stories, Sherlock Holmes is a detective
7. In the Conan Doyle stories, Sherlock Holmes is fictional.
But note that while (5) is plainly true, (7) is plainly false. So (7) cannot be taken as elliptical for (5) This is a serious problem for the 'story operator' approach. Or consider the true
8. Sherlock Holmes does not exist.
(8) is surely not short for the false
9. In the Conan Doyle stories, Sherlock Holmes does not exist.
The point can be made with other 'extranuclear' predicates such as 'merely possible' and 'mythological.' If I say that Pegasus is mythological, I don't mean that, according to legend, Pegasus is mythological. But the story operator approach also has trouble with 'nuclear' predicates such as 'detective.' But I'll save that for a subsequent post.
I'll end with a different challenge to the story operator approach. Consider
10. Pinocchio was less of a liar than Barack Obama.
Whether you consider (1) true or false, it is certainly not elliptical for
11. In Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883), Pinocchio was less of a liar than Barack Obama.
To put it vaguely, the the trouble with the story operator appoach is that it traps fictional characters within particular stories, songs, legends, tales, etc. so that (i) it becomes difficult to understand how they can show up in different different stories, songs, etc. as they obviously do in the cases of Faust and Pinocchio, and (ii) it becomes difficult to understand how they can show up in comparisons with nonfictional individuals.
As an ornery aporetician, I want ultimately to say that an equally strong case can be made both for and against the thesis that ficta are impossibilia. But here I only make (part of) the case for thinking that ficta are impossibilia.
Every human being is either right-handed or not right-handed. (But if one is not right-handed, it doesn't follow that one is left-handed. One could be ambidexterous or ambisinistrous.) What about the fictional character Hamlet? Is he right-handed or not right-handed? I say he is neither: he is indeterminate with respect to the property of righthandedness. That makes him an incomplete object, one that violates the law of Excluded Middle (LEM), or rather one to which LEM does not apply.
Hamlet (the character, not the play) is incomplete because he has all and only the properties ascribed to him by the author of the play, and the author left Hamlet's handedness unspecified. It is worth noting that Hamlet the play is complete and this holds for each written token of the play, the type of which they are tokens, and each enactment of the play. This is because the play and its enactments are actualia.
But don't we say that Hamlet the play is fictional? We do, but what we mean is not that the play is an object of fiction, but that the people and events depicted therein are fictional. The play is not fictional but entirely real. Of course, there could be a play that is a mere object of fiction: a play within a play. The same holds for novels. My copies of Moby Dick are each of them complete and actual, hence full-fledged citizens of the real, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereunto; but Ishmael, Queequeg, and Ahab are not. They are objects of fiction; those books are not. And presumably the type of which they are tokens, though an abstract object, is also actual and complete. A person's reading or 'enactment' of the novel is typically a long, interrupted process; but it too is complete and actual and resident in the real order.
Back to the character Hamlet: he is an incomplete object, having all and only the properties ascribed to him in the play (together with, perhaps, entailments of these properties). London Ed balks at this:
I don't follow this at all. I don't agree with the second sentence "He has all and only ….". Of course Shakespeare said that there was a person called ‘Hamlet’ who had certain properties (e.g. he said that Hamlet was a prince of Denmark. It doesn’t follow that there is someone who has or had such a property. For example, legend says that there was a horse called ‘Pegasus’ that flew. It doesn’t follow that there are or were flying horses.
This objection shows misunderstanding. I did not say or imply that there exists in actuality, outside the mind, a man named 'Hamlet.' The point is rather that when I read the play there appears before my mind a merely intentional object, one that I know is fictional, and therefore, one that I know is merely intentional. If Ed denies this, then he denies what is phenomenologically evident. And, as a matter of method, we must begin with the phenomenology of the situation.
Suppose I write a two-sentence novel:
It was a dark and rainy night. Shakey Jake, life-long insomniac, deciding he needed a nightcap, grabbed his flashlight and his raincoat and headed for the Glass Crutch bar and grill, a local watering hole a half a mile from his house.
Now I couldn't have written that, and you can't understand it, without thinking about various intentional objects that do not exist. Am I saying that there exist objects that do not exist? No, that would be a contradiction. Nor am I committed to saying that there are objects that have mind-independent being but not existence. Furthermore, I am not committed to Meinong's doctrine of Aussersein.
All I am doing is holding fast to a phenomenological datum: when I create a fictional character as I just did when I created Shakey Jake the insomniac, I bring before my mind an intentional object. (The act-object schema strikes me as having pretty good phenomenological credentials, unlike the adverbial schema.) What can we say about this merely intentional object? First, it is no part of the acts through which I think it. My acts of thinking exist in reality, but Shakey Jake does not exist in reality. (This point goes back to Twardowski.) When I think about Hamlet or Don Quixote or Shakey Jake, I am not thinking about my own mind or any state of my mind. I am not thinking about anything real. But it doesn' t follow that I am not thinking of anything.
If Ed denies that there are merely intentional objects, then he is denying what is phenomenologically evident. I take my stand on the terra firma of phenomenological givenness. So for now, and to get on with it, I simply dismiss Ed's objection. To pursue it further would involve us a in a metaphilosophical discussion of the role of phenomenological appeals in philosophical inquiry.
Ficta are Impossibilia
Let us confine ourselves to purely fictional objects and leave out of consideration real individuals who are partially fictionalized in fables, legends, apocryphal stories, so-called historical novels that blend fact and fiction, and the like. One of my theses is that purely fictional objects cannot exist and thus are broadly logically impossible. They are necessarily nonexistent, where the modality in question is broadly logical. It does not follow, however, that pure ficta have no ontological status whatsoever. They have a mode of being that could be called existential heteronomy. On this point I agree with Roman Ingarden, a philosopher who deserves more attention in the Anglosphere than he receives here.
Earlier I gave an argument from incompleteness: the incomplete cannot exist and so are impossible. But now I take a different tack.
Purely fictional objects are most plausibly viewed as made up, or constructed, by novelists, playwrights, et al. It may be that they are constructed from elements that are not themselves constructed, elements such as properties or Castaneda's ontological guises. Or perhaps fictional objects are constructed ex nihilo. Either way, they have no being at all prior to their creation or construction. There was no Captain Ahab before Melville 'cooked him up.' But if Ahab were a merely possible individual, then one could not temporally index his coming to be; he would not come to be, but be before, during, and after Melvlle's writing down his description.
The issue could be framed as follows. Are novels, plays, etc. which feature logically consistent pure ficta, something like telescopes that allow us to peer from the realm of the actual into the realm of the merely possible, both realms being realms of the real? Or are novels, etc. more like mixing bowls or ovens in which ficta are 'cooked up'? I say the latter. If you want, you can say that Melville is describing something when he writes about Ahab, but what he is describing is something he has made up: a merely intentional object that cannot exist apart from the acts of mind trained upon it. He is not describing something that has ontological status apart from his mind and the minds of his readers. He is also not descrbing some real feature or part of himself as subject. So we could say that in describing Ahab he is describing an item that is objectively but not subjectvely mind-dependent.
Here is an Argument from Origin:
1. Pure ficta are made up or constructed via the mental acts and actions of novelists, playwrights, et al.
2. Ahab is a pure fictum.
3. Ahab came into being via the mental activity of a novelist or playwright. (from 1,2)
4. No human being comes into being via the mental activity of novelists, et al., but via the uniting of human sperm and human egg.
5. Ahab is not a human being. (from 3, 4)
6. A merely possible human being is a human being, indeed a flesh-and-blood human being, though not an actual flesh-and-blood human being.
7. Ahab is not a merely possible human being, but a fictional human being where 'fictional' unlike 'merely possible' functions as an alienans adjective.
This argument does not settle the matter, however, since it is not compelling. A Meinongian or quasi-Meinongian could, with no breach of logical propriety, run the argument in reverse, denying (7) and denying (1). One man's modus ponens, etc.
The following from Chapter 11 of Big Sur, emphasis added. After three weeks alone in Big Sur in Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Bixby canyon cabin, Kerouac, freaked out by the solitude and his metaphysical and religious brooding amidst the starkness of nature, hitch hikes for the last time in his life north on Highway 1 toward Monterey and San Francisco where he receives another 'sign':
The next sign is in Frisco itself where after a night of perfect sleep in an old skid row hotel room I go to see Monsanto [Ferlinghetti] at his City Lights bookstore and he's smiling and glad to see me, says "We were coming out to see you next weekend you should have waited, " but there's something else in his expression -- When we're alone he says "Your mother wrote and said your cat is dead. "
Ordinarily the death of a cat means little to most men, a lot to fewer men, but to me, and that cat, it was exactly and no lie and sincerely like the death of my little brother -- I loved Tyke with all my heart, he was my baby who as a kitten just slept in the palm of my hand with his little head hanging down, or just purring, for hours, just as long as I held him that way, walking or sitting -- He was like a floppy fur wrap around my wrist, I just twist him around my wrist or drape him and he just purred and purred and even when he got big I still held him that way, I could even hold this big cat in both hands with my arms outstretched right over my head and he'd just purr, he had complete confidence in me -- And when I'd left New York to come to my retreat in the woods I'd carefully kissed him and instructed him to wait for me, 'Attends pour mue kitigingoo" -- But my mother said in the letter he had died the NIGHT AFTER I LEFT! -- But maybe you'll understand me by seeing for yourself by reading the letter:
"Sunday 20 July 1960, Dear Son, I'm afraid you wont like my letter because I only have sad news for you right now. I really dont know how to tell you this but Brace up Honey. I'm going through hell myself. Little Tyke is gone. Saturday all day he was fine and seemed to pick up strength, but late at night I was watching TV a late movie. Just about 1: 30 A. M. when he started belching and throwing up. I went to him and tried to fix him up but to no availe. He was shivering like he was cold so I rapped him up in a Blanket then he started to throw up all over me. And that was the last of him. Needless to say how I feel and what I went through. I stayed up till "day Break" and did all I could to revive him but it was useless. I realized at 4 A. M. he was gone so at six I wrapped him up good in a clean blanket -- and at 7 A. M. went out to dig his grave. I never did anything in my whole life so heart breaking as to bury my beloved little Tyke who was as human as you and I. I buried him under the Honeysuckle vines, the corner, of the fence. I just cant sleep or eat. I keep looking and hoping to see him come through the cellar door calling Ma Wow. I'm just plain sick and the weirdest thing happened when I buried Tyke, all the black Birds I fed all Winter seemed to have known what was going on. Honest Son this is no lies. There was lots and lots of em flying over my head and chirping, and settling on the fence, for a whole hour after Tyke was laid to rest -- that's something I'll never forget -- I wish I had a camera at the time but God and Me knows it and saw it. Now Honey I know this is going to hurt you but I had to tell you somehow... I'm so sick not physically but heart sick... I just cant believe or realize that my Beautiful little Tyke is no more -- and that I wont be seeing him come through his little "Shanty" or Walking through the green grass ... PS. I've got to dismantle Tyke's shanty, I just cant go out there and see it empty -- as is. Well Honey, write soon again and be kind to yourself. Pray the real "God" -- Your old Mom XXXXXX."
So when Monsanto told me the news and I was sitting there smiling with happiness the way all people feel when they come out of a long solitude either in the woods or in a hospital bed, bang, my heart sank, it sank in fact with the same strange idiotic helplessness as when I took the unfortunate deep breath on the seashore -- All the premonitions tying in together.
Monsanto sees that I'm terribly sad, he sees my little smile (the smile that came over me in Monterey just so glad to be back in the world after the solitudes and I'd walked around the streets just bemusedly Mona Lisa'ing at the sight of everything) -- He sees now how that smile has slowly melted away into a mawk of chagrin -- Of course he cant know since I didn't tell him and hardly wanta tell it now, that my relationship with my cat and the other previous cats has always been a little dotty: some kind of psychological identification of the cats with my dead brother Gerard who'd taught me to love cats when I was 3 and 4 and we used to lie on the floor on our bellies and watch them lap up milk -- The death of "little brother" Tyke indeed -- Monsanto seeing me so downcast says "Maybe you oughta go back to the cabin for a few more weeks -- or are you just gonna get drunk again" -- "I'm gonna get drunk yes"
[. . .]
It was the most happy three weeks of my life [the three weeks at Ferlinghetti's cabin in Bixby canyon] dammit and now this has to happen, poor little Tyke -- You should have seen him a big beautiful yellow Persian the kind they call calico" -- "Well you still have my dog Homer, and how was Alf out there? " -- "Alf the Sacred Burro, he ha, he stands in groves of trees in the afternoon suddenly you see him it's almost scarey, but I fed him apples and shredded wheat and everything" (and animals are so sad and patient I thought as I remembered Tyke's eyes and Alf's eyes, ah death, and to think this strange scandalous death comes also to human beings, yea to Smiler [Ferlinghetti] even, poor Smiler, and poor Homer his dog, and all of us) -- I'm also depressed because I know how horrible my mother now feels all alone without her little chum in the house back there three thousand miles (and indeed by Jesus it turns out later some silly beatniks trying to see me broke the windowpane in the front door trying to get in and scared her so much she barricaded the door with furniture all the rest of that summer).
Sweet gone Jack really did try to be a good boy and give up the booze and dissipation and all the near occasions of sin & temptation that fame brought him once he made it in '57 with the publication of On the Road. Here he is arrived at Lawrence Ferlinghett's (Lorenzo Monsanto's) cabin in Bixby Canyon, Big Sur:
And in the flush of the first few days of joy I confidently tell myself (not expecting what I'll do in three weeks only) "no more dissipation, it's time for me to quietly watch the world and even enjoy it, first in woods like these, then just calmly walk and talk among people of the world, no booze, no drugs, no binges, no bouts with beatniks and drunks and junkies and everybody, no more I ask myself the question O why is God torturing me, that's it, be a loner, travel, talk to waiters only, in fact, in Milan, Paris, just talk to waiters, walk around, no more self-imposed agony . . . it's time to think and watch and keep concentrated on the fact that after all this whole surface of the world as we know it now will be covered with the silt of a billion years in time.. . Yay, for this, more aloneness" -- "Go back to childhood, just eat apples and read your Cathechism -- sit on curbstones, the hell with the hot lights of Hollywood" (remembering that awful time only a year earlier when I had to rehearse my reading of prose a third time under the hot lights of the Steve Allen Show in the Burbank studio, one hundred technicians waiting for me to start reading, Steve Allen watching me expectant as he plunks the piano, I sit there on the dunce's stool and refuse to read a word or open my mouth, "I dont have to R E H E A R S E for God's sake Steve! " -- "But go ahead, we just wanta get the tone of your voice, just this last time, I'll let you off the dress rehearsal" and I sit there sweating not saying a word for a whole minute as everybody watches, finally I say, "No I cant do it, " and I go across the street to get drunk) (but surprising everybody the night of the show by doing my job of reading just fine, which surprises the producers and so they take me out with a Hollywood starlet who turns out to be a big bore trying to read me her poetry and wont talk love because in Hollywood man love is for sale)... So even that marvelous, long remembrances of life all the time in the world to just sit there or lie there or walk about slowly remembering all the details of life which now because a million lightyears away have taken on the aspect (as they must've for Proust in his sealed room) of pleasant movies brought up at will and projected for further study -- And pleasure -- As I imagine God to be doing this very minute, watching his own movie, which is us. (Big Sur, ch. 6, pp. 24-25)
. . .
from the wheel of the quivering meat conception and the granting of your wish:
"The wheel of the quivering meat conception . . . . . . I wish I was free of that
slaving meat wheel and safe in heaven dead." (Mexico City Blues, 1959,
In 1955, The Paris Review paid a struggling Jack Kerouac fifty dollars for an excerpt from a then unpublished manuscript. The excerpt appeared as a short story titled “The Mexican Girl” and, after much acclaim, was picked up a year later by Martha Foley’s The Best American Short Stories. Due in large part to the success of “The Mexican Girl,” On the Road was soon accepted by Viking Press; the full novel was published in 1957. (reference)
Here is an audio clip of "The Mexican Girl." Meanwhile, the Mexican Girl, Bea Franco, has been found, written up, and assumes her place in the Beat pantheon.
Lest we forget, however, "Pretty girls make graves." (The Dharma Bums)
I thought of Carolyn in September and I thought I ought to check the obituaries. She died September 20th at age 90, her longevity as if in counterpoise to the short tenures of her main men, wildman Neal Cassady, the Dean Moriarty of Kerouac's 1957 On the Road, and the brooding Jack Kerouac himself. Carolyn played the stabilizer to the mania of the one and the melancholy of the other. Both quit the sublunary before the '60s had run their course. The tale of Jack's end has been told too many times, though I will tell it again on 21 October, the 44th anniversary of his exit from the "slaving meat wheel." Neal's demise is less frequently recounted.
died in February of 1968, also of substance abuse, having quaffed a nasty
concotion of pulque and Seconals, while walking the railroad tracks near San Miguel de
Allende, Mexico. Legend has it that Cassady had been counting the ties and that
his last word was "64, 928." (Cf. William Plummer, The Holy Goof: A
Biography of Neal Cassady, Paragon, 1981, pp. 157-158.)
Carolyn kept the beat while the wildmen soloed, seeking ecstasy where it cannot be found.
May all who sincerely seek beatitude find it. Kerouac: "I want to be sincere." May Jack with his visions of Gerard, of Cody, finally enjoy the ultimate beat vision, the visio beata.
A minor quibble. Your recent post ("Forever Reading . . .") is in error, I'm afraid. After noticing the mistake on more than one occasion throughout several years following your wonderful blog, surely the time has come that I assist a fellow stickler. Schopenahuer did not author the line, "For ever reading, never to be read;" he merely quoted Alexander Pope, who once said,
I only know the verse myself from reading R.J. Hollingdale's translation of the Great Pessimist's essays and aphorisms, so I can see how one might attribute it thus. But alas, I know how much you honor precision, so I'm compelled to help where I can. That's it -- the first error I've been able to catch since 2005 or so. Excellent work, I'd say.
Ad majorem Dei gloriam!
Mr. Fitzgerald turns out to be correct. In "On Thinking for Oneself," an essay I had read circa 1980, Schopenhauer does indeed quote Alexander Pope, though only the words "For ever reading, never to be read." And the reference he gives is a little different: Dunciad iii, 194.
I in turn have a quibble with Mr. Fitzgerald's "minor quibble." A quibble is minor by definition, so 'minor quibble' is a pleonasm. Pleonasm, however, is but a peccadillo.
October is Kerouac month hereabouts, but aficionados will want to read the recent Football and the Fall of Jack Kerouac, a New Yorker piece that raises the question of the contribution of football-induced brain trauma to Kerouac's decline and early death.
In The New Criterion, Bruce Bawer lays into Kerouac's poetry with some justification:
Grimly reconciled though one may be to the annual flood of books by and about the Beat Generation, it’s particularly depressing to see Jack Kerouac’s poetry, of all things, enshrined in the Library of America, that magnificent series designed to preserve for posterity the treasures of our national literature. To read through these seven hundred–odd pages of Kerouac’s staggeringly slapdash effusions set in elegant Galliard, outfitted with the usual meticulous editorial apparatus, and bound—like Twain’s novels and Lincoln’s speeches—in a beautiful Library of America volume is enough to trigger a serious attack of cognitive dissonance.
The Essays of Montaigne, vol. I, tr. Trechmann, Oxford UP, no date, ch. 50, p. 295:
Why shall I not judge Alexander at table, talking and drinking to excess, or when he is fingering the chess-men? What chord of his mind is not touched and kept employed by this silly and puerile game? I hate it and avoid it because it is not play enough, and because it is too serious as an amusement, being ashamed to give it the attention which would suffice for some good thing. He was never more busy in directing his glorious expedition to the Indies; nor is this other man in unravelling a passage on which depends the salvation of the human race. See how our mind swells and magnifies this ridiculous amusement; how it strains all its nerves over it! How fully does this game enable every one to know and form a right opinion of himself! In no other situation do I see and test myself more thoroughly than in this. What passion is not stirred up by this game: anger [the clock-banger!] spite [the spite check!], impatience [the hasty move!], and a vehement ambition to win in a thing in which an ambition to be beaten would be more excusable! For a rare pre-eminence, above the common, in a frivolous matter, is unbefitting a man of honour. What I say in this example may be said in all others. Every particle, every occupation of a man betrays him and shows him up as well as any other.
Applying what Montaigne himself says in his final sentence to his writing of this essay, we may hazard the guess that he was much enamoured of the royal game, but not very good at it, and so here takes his revenge upon it, its goddess Caissa, and her acolytes. You will notice how onesided his portrayal is. He displayed the same defect in his remarks on clothing. But he is a Frenchman and so more concerned with witty phrasings than with the sober truth. The essay is delightfully brilliant nonetheless.
I learned yesterday that there was a Dutch novelist (1882-1961) who rejoiced under the pen name, Nescio, which is Latin for I don't know. His Amsterdam Stories is now available in English. Memo to self: get a copy!
Nescio would be a good title for a philosopher's weblog. Plato's Socrates is the hero and patron saint of philosophers, and he was the man who knew his ignorance. Intellectual humility is built into philosophy's name, philosophia, which signifies the acquisitive love of wisdom, not its possession.
Ideologues possess, or think they do. Philosophy dispossesses them of their pretended possessions.
Nowadays it is perhaps the ideologues of neurobabble who are in direst need of such dispossession.
I just now came across an excellent post by D. G. Myers in defense of the harsh style. Excerpts:
. . . the harsh style is first cousin to the plain style. They share a genetic predisposition, inherited from their ancestors the anti-Ciceronians and anti-Petrarchans, for clarity and exact statement (which are, of course, the same thing). The harsh style demands clarification, and knows there is a critical difference between clearing the air and freshening it. Where the plain stylist is content to speak definitively and to the point, the harsh stylist goes further, excoriating amiable blandness and sumptuous qualification. He is the sworn enemy of anything that menaces clarity and exact statement, whether it be accredited confusion, folk mythology, self-satisfied blunder, or political ideology.
[. . .]
It is no accident that so many harsh stylists are Jews. Judaism is a religion without catechism or dogma, and as a consequence, the Jewish tradition places great value upon loud-voiced and teeth-baring debate—as long as it is a makhlokhet leshem shamayim (“a dispute for the sake of heaven”). As long as a dispute is for the sake of heaven, there are no restrictions on “tone,” no code of manners, because how is it possible to be too aggressive and discourteous for the sake of heaven?
[Here I must digress to address a pet peeve. Something called “Feser’s tone” is the subject of occasional handwringing, not only among some of my secularist critics, but also among a handful of bed-wetters in the Christian blogosphere. But there is no such thing as “Feser’s tone,” if that is meant to refer to some vituperative modus operandi of mine. Sometimes my writing is polemical; usually it is not. I have written five books and edited two others. Exactly one of them -- The Last Superstition -- is polemical. Of course, some of my non-academic articles and blog posts are also polemical. But that is an approach I take only to a certain category of opponent, and typically toward people who have themselves been polemical and are merely getting a well-earned taste of their own medicine. Complaining about this is like complaining about police who shoot back at bank robbers. I’ve addressed the question of why and under what circumstances polemics are justified in this post and in other posts you’ll find linked to within it. End of digression.]
In Misattributed to Socrates, I announced my opposition to "misquotation, misattribution, the retailing of unsourced quotations, the passing off of unchecked second-hand quotations, and sense-altering context suppression." But I left one out: the willful fabrication of 'quotations.' And yesterday I warned myself and others against pseudo-Latin.
Today I received from Claude Boisson an example of a willful fabrication of a 'quotation' in pseudo-Latin:
An anecdote on pseudo-Latin + French bullshit rolled into one.
A rather infamous but self-satisfied French sociologist, Michel Maffesoli (yes, some of our sociologists are as bad as some of our philosophers), recently gave an interview in one of the major weeklies, L'Express, in which he said "Everybody knows the Cartesian sentence Cogito ergo sum, but we tend to forget the rest: Cogito ergo sum in arcem meum."
[I think therefore I am in my castle.]
I ferociously answered that in an article of his, available on line, he had already committed the same sin, unforgettable for a university professor, of forging a quotation ("the Latin formula in its entirety is more interesting" he had stated). And this was in a development supposed to prove that the concept of the individual is ascribable to "the beginning of modernity", since, only "collective thought" was known to the benighted thinkers of the Dark Ages.
I then told him
(1) that the Discours de la méthode was written in French, and was translated into Latin seven years later by Etienne de Courcelles, so there was no real need for showing off Latin (Je pense donc je suis being the original Cartesian French);
(2) that the invention in arcem meum is, alas!, doubly mistaken since it piles a syntactic error ("in" with a local meaning must be followed by an ablative) onto a morphological error (the name "arx" is feminine), so the real Latin should read in arce mea; no scholar would have been guilty of these atrocious mistakes in Descartes' day;
(3) that the metaphor of the "citadel of the soul" was known to such people as John of Salisbury (who duly wrote in arce animae) in the 12th century, and long before him to the Stoics, including Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius;
(4) that for anybody desirous to meditate on "modernity", Saul Steinberg's jocular Cogito ergo Cartesius sum was perhaps of more interest than a forged quotation.
All this is easily accessible on the Internet.
Disgusting! Another example of the destruction of the universities and the decline of the humanities 'thanks' to leftism, post-modernism, and scientism.
Here is a passage from Thomas McGuane, Nothing but Blue Skies, Houghton-Mifflin, 1992, pp. 201-202, to which I have added hyperlinks.
He [Frank Copenhaver] turned on the radio and listened to an old song called "Big John": everybody falls down a mine shaft; nobody can get them out because of something too big to pry; Big John comes along and pries everybody loose but ends up getting stuck himself; end of Big John. Frank guessed it was a story of what can happen to those on the top of the food chain.
On to an oldies station and the joy of finding Bob Dylan: "You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend." No one compares with this guy, thought Frank. I feel sorry for the young people of today with their stupid fucking tuneless horseshit; that may be a generational judgment but I seriously doubt it. Frank paused in his thinking , then realized he was suiting up for his arrival in Missoula. In a hurricane of logging trucks, he heard, out of a hole in the sky the voice of Sam Cooke: "But I do know that I love you." Frank began to sweat. "And I know that if you love me too, what a wonderful world this would be."
Yesterday I said I was opposed to ". . . misquotation, misattribution, the retailing of unsourced quotations, the passing off of unchecked second-hand quotations, and sense-altering context suppression." An example of the last-mentioned follows.
Here is a famous passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance" rarely quoted in full:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. (Ziff, 183)
People routinely rip the initial clause of this passage out of its context and take Emerson to be attacking logical consistency. Or else they quote only the first sentence, or the first two sentences. An example by someone who really ought to know better is provided by Robert Fogelin in his book, Walking the Tightrope of Reason (Oxford UP, 2001). Chapter One, "Why Obey the Laws of Logic?," has among its mottoes (p. 14) the first two sentences of the Emerson quotation above. The other three mottoes, from Whitman, Nietzsche, and Aristotle, are plainly about logical consistency.
It should be clear to anyone who reads the entire passage quoted above in the context of Emerson's essay that Emerson’s dictum has nothing to do with logical consistency and everything to do with consistency of beliefs over time. The consistency in question is diachronic rather than synchronic. A “little mind” is “foolishly consistent” if it refuses to change its beliefs when change is needed due to changing circumstances, further experience, or clearer thinking. It should be clear that if I believe that p at time t, but believe that ~p at later time t*, then there is no time at which I hold logically inconsistent beliefs. Doxastic alteration, like alteration in general, is noncontradictory for the simple reason that properties which are contradictory when taken in abstracto are had at different times. My coffee changes from hot to non-hot, and thus has contradictory attributes when we abstract from the time of their instantiation. But since the coffee instantiates them at different times, there is no contradiction such as would cause us to join Parmenides in denying the reality of the changeful world.
Belief change is just a special case of this. Suppose a politician changes her position for some good reason. There is not only nothing wrong with this, it shows an admirable openness. She goes from believing in a progressive tax scheme to believing in a flat tax, say. Surely there is no logical contradiction involved, and for two reasons.
First, the property of believing that a progressive tax is warranted is not the contradictory, but merely the contrary, of the property of believing that a flat tax is warranted. (They cannot both be instantiated at the same time, but it is possible that neither be instantiated.) Second, the properties are had at different times. A logical contradiction ensues only when one simultaneously maintains both that p and that ~p.
Emerson’s sound point, then, is that one should not make a fetish out of doxastic stasis: there is nothing wrong with being ‘inconsistent’ in the sense of changing one’s beliefs when circumstances change and as one gains in experience and insight. But this is not to say that one should adopt the antics of the flibbertigibbet. Relative stability of views over time is an indicator of character.
Before leaving this topic, let's consider what Walt Whitman has to say in the penultimate section 51 of “Song of Myself” in Leaves of Grass:
Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Here it appears that Whitman is thumbing his nose at logical consistency. If so, the Emersonic and Whitmanic dicta ought not be confused. But confuse them is precisely what Fogelin does when he places the Emerson and Whitman quotations cheek-by-jowl on p. 14 of his book.
I am a foe of misquotation, misattribution, the retailing of unsourced quotations, the passing off of unchecked second-hand quotations, and sense-altering context suppression. Have I ever done any of these things? Probably. 'Suffering' as I do from cacoethes scribendi, it is a good bet that I have committed one or more of the above. But I try to avoid these 'sins.'
This morning I was reading from Karl Menninger, M.D., Whatever Became of Sin? (Hawthorn Books, 1973). On p. 156, I found this quotation:
Our youth today love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for older people. Children nowadays are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.
At the bottom of the page there is a footnote that reads: "Socrates, circa 425 B. C. Quoted in Joel Fort, The Pleasure Seekers (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969)."
I was immediately skeptical of this 'quotation.' In part because I had never encountered the passage in the Platonic dialogues I have read, but also because the quotation is second-hand. So I took to the 'Net and found what appears to be a reputable site, Quote Investigator.
. . . was crafted by a student, Kenneth John Freeman, for his Cambridge dissertation published in 1907. Freeman did not claim that the passage under analysis was a direct quotation of anyone; instead, he was presenting his own summary of the complaints directed against young people in ancient times.
FALSE APHORISMS are not as rare as one might think. More significant than Wilde's, on account of its influence, is Marx's dismissal of religion as "the opium of the people." For this implies that religion is adopted purely for its ability to soothe the wounds of society, and that there is some other condition to which humanity might advance in which religion would no longer be needed. Both those implications are false, but they are boiled into a stock cube as tasty as any that has been seen on the intellectual menu. How many would-be intellectuals have dissolved this cube into their prose and given their thought, in the manner of Christopher Hitchens, a specious air of wisdom?
Permit me a quibble. Should we call a striking formulation lifted from a wider context an aphorism? I don't think so. An aphorism by my lights is a pithy observation intended by its author to stand alone. Accordingly, Marx's famous remark is not an aphorism. The wider context is provided here.
Today is The International Day of Translators and in my blog I dared to use one of your thougts from your blog, to show how difficult it can get to translate some thoughful ideas into another language.
Your statement I have borrowed was, "Silence is a grating clangor to the unwhole man."
I also suggested a translation and encouraged the readers to provide their critical analysis and possible (better) translation variants.
The blog post has received a very good following so far, people especially speculated about the poetic figure of "grating clangor" and the philosophical aspect of the "unwhole man."
Somebody also suggested a reversed translation of one of the Slovak versions into English: "Silence is a scratch and clangor in the ear of a man lacking inner integrity."
If your time allows, can you please let us know, whether this is close to your original idea, or is it absolutely ridiculous?
Thank you very much,
Dear Mr. Šebo,
I am glad you enjoyed my aphorism and found it stimulating. I wrote it on 3 January 1972 while a young man living in a garret in Salzburg, Austria. When I opened the skylight in the bathroom I got a view of the Salzburg Festung, 'fastness' being a nice old poetic English word for Festung.
As for your reverse translation, I would say that it conveys the idea that I was trying to express, but does so in a way that violates one of the rules for a good aphorism. The good aphorist aims at economy of expression. A good aphorism is terse. "Scratch and" is superfluous, as is "to the ear." Clangor is a loud ringing sound; sounds are perceived through the ears; so there is no need to add "to the ear." 'Clangor' has the added virtue of sounding like what it means. The 'resonance' of the word is diminished by the addition of "scratch and." "Unwhole man" is a more poetic and economical way of saying "man lacking inner integrity." But that is what I meant.
At the time I wrote the aphorism I may have been reading Max Picard who wrote a book entitled The World of Silence. Here is something about Picard.
This is Danny Lanzetta. I saw your blog posting in response to my piece in the Huffington Post last week, "In Defense of Jack Kerouac..." Thanks for reading.
In your reaction, you wrote of my link to that famous OTR passage: "Lanzetta seems to be suggesting that this is a particularly bad specimen of Kerouac's scrivening."
I went back and looked at the passage in question. Your reading of it could not be more correct. That is absolutely what I wrote. However, it is not what I meant. My point was supposed to be that Kerouac's "madness" sometimes led to the most beautiful and ecstatic writing one could ever read (thus, the link), while at other times it led to the mess that became his personal life (such as his terrible treatment of his daughter, Jan). After countless proofreadings and going through my piece with a fine-toothed comb, I simply missed the way that sentence read. A simple adjective, appropriately placed, could've saved me. Alas, I missed it. I apologize for the confusion.
I'd be grateful if you could pass along my apologies to your readers. Luckily, it was only a case of bad writing (my own) and not what would be an egregious denouncement of one of the most beautiful sentences ever put to paper.
Well, Danny, there is certainly no need to apologize. If you had meant that the famous OTR passage was the sort of purple prose an over-excited sophomore might write, that would have been a defensible claim. But I am glad that is not what you meant. In any case, it is very easy for a writer to fail to say what he means.
I must say I was very impressed at your willingness to accept criticism.
I have discovered the aphorisms of Stanislaw Jerzy Lec via a reference in a book by Josef Pieper. Here are a few that impressed me from More Unkempt Thoughts (Curtis Publishing, 1968, tr. Jacek Galazka), the only book of Lec's I could easily lay hands on.
No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. (9)
Why can't you believe in paradise on earth when you know there is hell on earth? (10)
When they blow the horn of plenty this loud, it must be empty. (15)
In him there is a void filled to the brim with erudition. (18)
Do not greet people with open arms. Why make yourself easier to crucify? (19)
Take good care of yourself: Property of the State. (22)
Cannibals prefer men who have no spines. (28)
To keep fit fame needs the massage of applause. (31)
Ladies, do not complain about men: their aims are as transparent as your clothes. (36)
The strongest brakes fail on the path of least resistance. (37)
Percussion wins every discussion. (38)
You cannot rely on people to remember, or, alas, to forget. (42).
In some countries life is so open you can spot the Secret Police everywhere. (42)
Not every shi- can age gracefully and become valuable guano. (48)
When men a dangerous disease did 'scape Of old they gave a cock to Aesculape Let me give two, that doubly am got free From my disease's danger, and from thee.
Ben Jonson (1753?-1637) from Epigrams and Epitaphs (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), p. 27.
At the very end of the Phaedo, having drunk the hemlock, Socrates is reported by Plato as saying to Crito, "I owe a cock to Asclepius; do not forget to pay it." (tr. F. J. Church) Asclepius is the Greek god of healing. Presumably, Socrates wanted to thank the god for his recovery from the sickness of life itself.
Nietzsche comments at the the beginning of "The Problem of Socrates" in The Twilight of the Idols:
Concerning life, the wisest men of all ages have judged alike: it is no good. Always and everywhere one has heard the same sound from their mouths -- a sound full of doubt, full of melancholy, full of weariness of life, full of resistance to life. Even Socrates said, as he died: "To live -- that means to be sick a long time: I owe Asclepius the Savior a rooster." (tr. W. Kaufmann)
But now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.
— Umberto Eco
The world is a play of phenomena, an enigmatic play of appearances beneath which there is no reality. Harmless in itself, the world is made terrible by us when we make the mad attempt to lay bare an underlying truth it fails to possess. Part of Eco's thought, I take it, is that those who seek the world's underlying truth fool themselves into thinking that they have found it, and having convinced themselves that they are now in possession of it, feel entitled and perhaps even obligated to impose it on others for their own good. But these others, naturally, resist the imposition and react violently. Hence the pursuit of the truth leads to contention and bloodshed. Better to live and let live and admit that there is a variety of perspectives, a diversity of interpretations, but no God's Eye perspective and no final interpretation, let alone an uninterpreted reality in itself, a true world hidden by the world of appearances. The world is interpretation all the way down. Being has no bottom.
The line of thought is seductive but incoherent. If the world is an enigma, then it is true that it is an enigma. If it is harmless, then it is true that it harmless. If it is made terrible by our attempt to interpret it, then it is true that it is made terrible by our attempt to interpret it. If our attempt is mad, then it is true that our attempt is mad. And if it has no underlying truth, then it is true that it has no underlying truth.
If that is the truth, then there is after all an underlying truth and the world cannot be a play of relativities, of shifting perspectives, of mere interpretations. If the world is such-and-such, then it is, and doesn't merely seem.
Kerouac's work is undoubtedly sophomoric at times. He is hopelessly naïve about people, which sometimes leads to this and other times just comes off as laziness, a selfish desire to write the way he wanted to write and live the way he wanted to live, collateral damage be damned.
The first link is to this OTR passage:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!"
Lanzetta seems to be suggesting that this is a particularly bad specimen of Kerouac's scrivening. But although too often quoted, it is passages like this that grabbed my attention and gave me shivers back in the '60s and that still do now in my 60s. My 'beatitude' is considerably more measured these days, and it's a good thing too: too much 'madness' leads to an early grave. Jack's prodigious quaffing of the joy juice caught up with him in '69 at the tender age of 47, and his hero Neal Cassady (the Dean Moriarty of On the Road) was found dead on the railroad tracks near San Miguel Allende, Mexico the year before a few days shy of his 42nd birthday.
But it is for the hyper-romanticism and the heartfelt gush & rush that some of us read Kerouac still despite his many literary flaws, not to mention the mess he made of his life and the lives of others. He was no cool beatnik. He was mad to live, to talk, to feel, to know, to be saved. He was a restless dreamer, a lonesome traveler, a dharma seeker, a desolation angel passing through this vale of tears & mist, a pilgrim on the via dolorosa of this dolorous life, a drifter on the river of samsara hoping one day to cross to the Far Shore.
For all his claims of erudition, Vidal suffered the wages of the public autodidact. I noticed he quoted Latin ad nauseam — and nearly always with his nouns and adjectives not just in the wrong cases (especially the confusion of the accusative and ablative in preposition phrases), but predictably in the fashion of those who like to copy down Latin phrases but cannot read a complete Latin sentence. By his sixties, Vidal had degenerated into a conspiracy theorist, and his embarrassing late-life infatuation with Timothy McVeigh caught the eye of the goddess Nemesis.
At any given time I am reading twenty or so books. One of them at the moment is Susan Sontag, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks 1964-1980, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2012. In the midst of a lot of stuff, there are some gems. Here is one:
Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details. Aphoristic thinking constructs thinking as an obstacle race: the reader is expected to get it fast and move on. An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that. (512)
The last line is the best. There is something plebeian about argument. The thought is pure Nietzsche. See "The Problem of Socrates" in Twilight of the Idols (tr. Kaufmann):
Section 4: Socrates' decadence is suggested not only by the admitted wantonness and anarchy of his instincts, but also by the hypertrophy of the logical faculty . . . .
Section 5: With Socrates, Greek taste changes in favor of dalectics. [. . .] What must first be proved is worth little. Wherever authority still forms part of good bearing, where one does not give reasons but commands, the dialectician is a kind of buffoon . . . . Socrates was the buffoon who got himself taken seriously . . . .
Whether or not argument is plebeian, it has no place in an aphorism. As I put it:
An aphorism that states its reasons is no aphorism at all. But the reasons are there, though submerged, like the iceberg whose tip alone is visible. An aphorism, then, is the tip of an iceberg of thought.
Aphorisms and poems have this in common: neither can justify what they say while remaining what they are.
The Sontag-Nietzsche view seems to be that one needn't have reasons for what one aphoristically asserts; mine is that one should have them but not state them, leastways, not in the aphorisms themselves.
Addendum, 4:30 PM: That indefatigable argonaut of cyberspace, the ever-helpful Dave Lull, librarian non pareil, friend of bloggers and the just recipient of their heart-felt encomia, sent me a link to a post by James Geary entitled Susan Sontag on Aphorisms.
Geary rightly demolishes the silly conceit of another blogger who, commenting on Sontag, characterizes aphorisms as "the ultimate soundbitification of thinking." That is truly awful and deserves to be buried in the deepest and most mephitic nether regions of the blogosphere.
But Geary says something that contradicts my claim above that argument has no place in an aphorism:
And aphorisms are arguments. That’s why they are so often written in declarative or imperative form. An aphorism is only one side of the argument, though.
It appears that Geary is confusing a statement with an argument. Consider Nietzsche's "Some men are born posthumously." This is a declarative sentence but certainly no argument. An argument requires at least one premise and a conclusion. To argue is to support a claim with reasons. Nothing like this is going on in the one-sentence aphorism just quoted.
I purchased Edward Abbey’s posthumous collection of journal extracts entitled Confessions of a Barbarian (ed. Petersen, Little, Brown & Co., 1994) in April of 1997. Here are some journal jottings inspired by it.
From the notebooks of Paul Brunton to the journals of Ed Abbey – from one world to another. Each of us inhabits his own world. You're damned lucked if in a lifetime you meet two or three kindred souls who can enter, even if only a few steps, into one's own world. The common world in which we meet with many is but the lowest common denominator of our private spheres of meaning.
Abbey bears the marks of an undisciplined man, undisciplined in mind and in body. A slovenly reasoner, a self-indulger.
Paul Brunton, Ed Abbey, Whittaker Chambers, Gustav Bergmann . . . mysticism, nature, politics, ontology . . . . The wild diversity of human interests and commitments. It never ceases to fascinate and astonish me.
Ed Abbey: a romantic, the makings of a quester, but swamped by his sensuality. Held down by the weight of the flesh. The religious urge peeps out here and there in his journals, but his crudity is ever-ready to stifle any upward aspirations.
Abbey: the sex monkey rode him hard night and day. But did he want to throw him off? Hell no! Augustine wanted to be chaste, but not right away. Abbey did not want to be chaste. Can an incontinent man gain any true and balanced insight into the world and life? Lust, like pride, dims the eyes of the mind, and eventually blinds them.
The sex monkey in tandem with the booze monkey, a tag team tough to beat.
Which is more manly, to battle one’s sensuality like Augustine, or to wallow in it like Abbey? Is it cock and balls that make the man? Clothes? Social status? Money? Political power? Big truck? (Abbey: "The bigger the truck the smaller the penis.") Or is it that weak little Funklein, the fragile germ of divine lght that we carry within?
The crudity of Abbey, the elevation of Thoreau.
Abbey: a tremendous sensitivity to the beauties of nature and music, but larded over with an abysmal crudity. Half-educated, self-indulgent, willful. But he knows it, and a tiny part of him wants to do something about it, but he can’t. His base soul is too strong for his noble soul. Goethe’s Faust complained, “Zwei Seelen, ach, wohnen in meiner Brust, und der einer will sich von den anderen trennen!” Abbey could have made the same complaint about two incompatible souls in one breast.
Abbey: proud of his sensuality, his big dick, his five children whom he thinks are just darlings while meanwhile holding that others should not be allowed to procreate. A misanthrope – but not when it comes to himself, his family, and his friends. A tribalist of sorts.
The battle between the noble and the base. In Ed Abbey, the base usually wins.
Ed Abbey made a false god of nature. There is no god but Nature, and Abbey is her prophet.
As for his writing, I'll take it over the social phenomenology of suburban hank-panky served up by East Coast establishmentarians such as John Cheever and John Updike.
The novel is about a famous philosopher who, midway through his career, suddenly finds himself (as Dante did) lost. He feels he has failed his wife and family (the wife has left him), feels he has betrayed his earlier promise and the values of his Wisconsin Lutheran background, has lost interest in his students and has ceased to care about philosophical questions, has lost faith and hope in democracy (and owes a large sum of money to the IRS), scorns the university where he teaches and the unsophisticated town in which it is situated, and has good reason to believe he is losing his mind. He cuts himself off fom his university community by buying a huge rotting house in the country, which turns out to be haunted (if he can trust his wits), and he finds himself up to the neck in evils he never before dreamt of -- middle-of-the-night dumpings of poisonous wastes, witchcraft, backwoods prostitution, a mysterious string of murders, and more. (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, Harper and Row, 1983, p. 141.)
On Becoming a Novelist is an excellent book, just unbelievably good. And the above described novel ain't no slouch either. But Gardner, being a damned fool, got himself killed in a motorcycle accident at the tender age of 49. A serious loss to American letters.
Philip Roth, Exit Ghost (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), p. 58:
All in all, being without any need to play a role was preferable to the friction and agitation and conflict and pointlessness and disgust that, as a person ages, can render less than desirable the manifold relations that make for a rich, full life. I stayed away because over the years I conquered a way of life that I (and not just I) would have thought impossible, and there's pride taken in that. I may have left New York because I was fearful, but by paring and paring and paring away, I found in my solitude a species of freedom that was to my liking much of the time. I shed the tyranny of my intensity -- or, perhaps, by living apart for over a decade, merely reveled in its sternest mode.
Embarked as they are upon a life of exploration rather than representation, novelists, like philosophers, may find irksome, confining, and perhaps even impossible the playing of roles. Role-instantiation engenders a richness of relations, and with that comes fullness of life, but these relations are willingly renounced for a solitude austere, cold, but free.
Near the end of Richard Weaver's essay, "Life Without Prejudice," he quotes Milton:
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world; we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by that which is contrary.
The passage bears comparison with Theodore Roosevelt's remarks about being in the arena.
I like especially the last sentence of the Milton quotation. We are born corrupt, not innocent. We are not here (mainly) to improve the world, but (mainly) to be improved by it. The world's a vale of soul-making. Since this world is a vanishing quantity, it makes little sense to expend energy trying to improve it: when your house is burning down, you don't spruce up the facade. You don't swab the decks of a sinking ship. It makes more sense to spend time and effort on what has a chance of outlasting the transitory. This world's use is to build something that outlasts it.
But this will, pace Milton, require some flight from the world into the cloister where perhaps alone the virtues can be developed that will need testing later in the world.