I SHOULD GIVE UP

Reading Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice and The Crying Lot of 49 recently has resolved some new understanding of the way I write/think, or rather, how the latter gets translated into the former. For those who’ve not partaken, Pynchon’s writing rolls along line by line gobbling up every idea it comes across, tangential or not, stretching the start and period of his sentences to a yawning chasm betwixt which one fears stranded, lost, or, conversely, the apexes of a rubber band run too far till the inevitable twang snap sends it raveling towards its source and coda. I’d hated my writing a great while due this tendency to stammer out a crush of ideas yet untangled like Christmas lights shaken out on the table or the knot of headphones pulled from a pocket’s jumble of keys, balm, receipts, gum, change, lint, etc. Pragmatism, I’d told myself, pragmatism. Get to the point and get out. Cut sentences to morsels. Chop the ideas like an onion: chap chap chap chap. Be fucking Hemingway, damn it.

It took too long to realize pragmatism and minimalism were close friends bit weren’t blood related. Pragmatism is about minimalism, sure, but for the sake of the thing itself, not the altar at which the non-minimalist was offered. My mistake was charging my thoughts and their manifestations in my writing with a task they were unfit. Ideas can zig and zip and crack and twap but not all are whips, some come out an overfilled garbage bag giving way under too many half-eaten pizza slices, plastic film wrapping, cardboard, overdue leftovers, apple cores, beer bottles, meals of failed ambition, a sudden rush of noise motion sound and smell as, holding its husk in hand, you struggle to collect your thoughts. This was the way I thought and wrote, and forcing Hemingway was ruining it. Pragmatism requires the thing to be its most useful, which I missed. Chopping up ideas were just disemboweling them, not making them better. I’d been tugging my reader through the grassy safety of the forest’s edge while my heart was home somewhere in that thicket, through the shush of leaves and undergrowth amongst the shards of light slipping past the treetops, hidden somewhere in the bush, and I did no good out there in the sun and sky meeking, “the jungle looks too dense and I don’t have a hatchet or an ax,” because a lack of hatchet or ax was the reality I’d denied myself, for I’d have to live with the forest, the forest was what I was, what I am, where my heart lives, and if we’re not stomping, pulling, squinting the dimness for the heart, then what even was the point?

While the first goal of Pirsig’s Zen is to reunite the left brain/right brain concepts into one unified whole, as explained in the previous post, the second was as a solution to the alienation many romantics feel towards their classical-dominated world. While the great tendency of the romantically-minded is to only take away the ugliness of a system whose constituent parts are designed primarily for function, Pirsig hopes to illuminate to beauty of the system and its functions in itself, to give weight to the idea that a system is as beholden to quality as a painting is to beauty.

The narrator illustrates the gulf while discussing the motorcycles with his friend and fellow rider John. John rides a BMW, a bike known for its reliability. Being a foreign bike, though, John is unlikely to find a mechanic in the western US, where they are riding, should he need one. The narrator points this out and suggests that John learn how to care for his bike to prevent such a disaster, to understand how the thing properly functions so he can foresee any problems before they become catastrophic.

John is nonplussed by the suggestion, saying he doesn’t want to get into “all that”, which disturbs our narrator: the idea that John and the bike are separate considerations in this cross-country journey makes little sense. The two, in fact, are co-dependent in just about every way. John depends on the bike’s proper function to go anywhere–the very thing he chooses to ignore–otherwise he’s not going anywhere. By the same idea, the bike and its proper function are dependent on John; how he rides it in what conditions, how often he greases the chain or changes the oil, when he tunes it or has someone tune it for him, all effect the proper function of the bike. But this requires the classical quality perspective, which brings past and future knowledge and consequences to bear on this object in the present, which John doesn’t have, at least not towards this machine. To John, the machine is there solely for the purposes of the romantic sensation of riding it, and that exists in the present tense.

What we learn later is that our idea of the John-bike symbiotic relationship is slightly off. By considering the bike as a separate entity, we have further perpetuated the alienation: the bike remains something unconnected and misunderstood despite the need John has for it. In fact, by this line of thinking it becomes more so, as we are treating the bike as an agent unto itself, as if the bike is making decisions apart from John’s own decision making. The bike thus transforms from a confusing gizmo that John would rather not take the time to understand its operation, to an actor itself who is actively attempting to be misunderstood and trying to thwart John’s riding it without issue. Which, of course, is completely silly, but an easy enough emotion to understand if one has ever interacted with a device that simply doesn’t want to perform its function; it seems to not want to be understood.

What the narrator proposes later on is a much healthier engagement with the technology we interact. Reflecting the Kantian system of a priori concepts upon which we build our knowledge, the narrator proposes the work on the bike as the work on the mental concept of the bike as well. Considering the skilled mechanic, the narrator describes the way in which he clears his thoughts of nothing but the bike, adjusting the parts of the bike in reality as well as the parts of the bike in his mind. The bike he disassembles is not alien to him because he already has it sitting on the work table of his mind, waiting to be taken apart just like the actual bike. Thus comes the ability to fix it properly: the bike on his work table is meant to be fixed, adjusted, and calibrated to the a priori bike sitting in his mind, to be made as close to the ideal as the tools and reality will allow him.

Thus, we get the John-bike relationship straightened: the bike is to be an extension of John as much as any of his appendages are.

It’s not uncommon for what I’m reading to mix with things I’ve read in the past, that seemingly disparate ideas tend to find a way of making sense of one another. In this instance my thoughts lie with the last two books I’ve read, Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (from which I’ll probably have more posts about). Though not necessarily of a kind–Universe is about the study of space and string theory, while Zen is largely about epistemology and metaphysics–the crossing point is the problem of what we’re seeing and thinking when we’re seeing and thinking things.

Though the seed of this thought was planted in Universe, I think it would be easier to start with Zen and work my way backwards. The entire concept underlying Zen is the correlation of objective reasoning with the subjective experience we necessarily have as beings constricted to the inside of our heads. His idea is that we manipulate human thought into two categories, the romantic (art, beauty, esthetics, etc.) and the classical (science, mathematics, reasoning, etc.), with the notion that everything we encounter can easily be moved into one of these two camps. By everything, he means the intellectual concepts rather than the physical objects, so the inner workings of a computer would be purely classical, while the actual use of it is romantic (if we’re assuming the way one uses it is though the operating systems and gateways already set up by the programmer, as most people do).

This, he says, is ugly and unfit. He starts by establishing some Kantian principles, and he does that via David Hume’s ideas on experience-based thought. Hume is strictly an empiricist, stating that all knowledge is gained only by sensory experiences. Perhaps one might want to conclude with that idea, but the consequences are heavy. For one, the belief that there is something outside of us to give us this sensory data–that is, the other objects in the universe outside of our brain–is false, because there is no way for us to move outside of the senses we have to interpret the physical substances in any way. Without verification, there’s no way to know that these things are true. Second, since we can’t interpret the world beyond what we know from seeing it, the concept of causation has to be thrown out as well, since we can’t interpret these things in any way other than that it has happened plenty of times before. We cannot conclude one thing must follow the other when the entire basis of our belief is that we’ve seen one thing happen, and then seen another thing follow it. Our knowledge isn’t gained by the fact that the causation we’ve experienced happened sometime in our past any more than a different causation chain would give us any new knowledge.

What Kant says to solve this riddle is to throw out Hume’s empirical model with one completely his own. Though he accepts the premise that all knowledge starts with experience, as Hume claims, he presents the idea that knowledge must not necessarily arise directly from that experience. Once we have built up sufficient concepts of things and how they work and for which they best function, we create in our minds these a priori concepts of how things are supposed to be in some ideal. So while we may only experience each chair as its own flawed, objectively contained existence, from these we can imagine the concept of the best chair, the ideal chair from which we interpret each proceeding chair we experience. We gather the ways in which things feel, operate, and function and put things all together in a mental concept of the thing we have experienced.

Using Kant’s a priori concept as a template, Pirsig puts everything under the new heading of Quality. Quality, he says, is the pre-intellectual conception that delineates that which is good from that which is poor, based around this a priori idea. When we interact with something like a painting, the immediate feeling is not rationalized but rather an association between the a priori concept we possess of “beauty” or some other category. The idea of subjects and objects is birthed out of this, he says, as a means of separating the object from the subject’s inner idea of the Quality in question. So when we deal with classical and romantic schools of thought, it is no longer this gulf to be spanned but a difference in their Quality types: romantic quality is of the present state, something that needs no prior information to understand; classical quality is based on past and future states, the making of previous experiences into ideas to be developed for some future function, operation, concept, or utilization.

In reading Universe, I came across an idea that butts up against this idea of classical thought being an interplay between observations of the past and expectations in the future. Once Greene went deep enough into the known aspects of space-time to get to string theory, the qualities one assumes of the universe start failing. Via three different means–the law of gravity, quantum fluctuations at the Planck length, and a hypothesis that the universe might be circular–it became clear that space as we conceive of it is not flat. Nor is it merely three-dimensional; due to the necessary permutations of strings, the three dimensions we’re familiar with are accompanied by at least six “folded-up” dimensions, along with a time dimension. And the uncertainty principle suggests that determining simultaneously where any quantum particle is and its momentum at a particular moment is impossible.

This gave me the epiphany that is two-thousand years in the making. Plato’s theory of forms questioned how we have conceptions about perfect circles and straight lines without having ever seen them, but what he didn’t push the discussion forward to is that we have no natural instances of just about everything covered in math. Not only is there no such thing as a naturally occurring straight line, due to among other things the curvature of space and the uncertainty principle, but that the familiar two-dimensional graph we put it on and numbers assigned to the hashes don’t exist either. There are no parabolas either, no points, no calculus, nothing. And branching off of that is the backing of a lot of sciences too, that depend on these mathematical precepts to exist.

That’s not to say that they aren’t useful, obviously, as their application has rendered the world we live in today. But they are, as Pirsig refers to the theory of gravity, just ghosts. Were one to wipe the knowledge of these things from every human’s mind and destroy all the physical and digital data of it, they would cease to exist. Just as we are now, the myths would render philosophy, philosophy would render science and mathematics, and science and mathematics would test and experiment there way back to something of the world we have now. The observations of the past would give us the stepping stools to experiment and hypothesize for what we can do with the future.

But as Hume had postulated on towards the beginning of this post, all we can be completely sure of is the present, and since this is a personal blog this is where I wedge my own feelings in. A lot of the subject of Zen is this cut-off of the romantic thinkers from the classical aspects of the world. The narrator’s fellow motorcycler owns a BMW, a model that is sturdy and reliable, but the likelihood that they would run into someone with working knowledge of the bike on the route of their trip is small. If the thing does break down, he’s likely to be stranded with no way of getting the thing working again. The narrator insists that his friend learn some basic maintenance of the thing so he can at least try to prevent any catastrophe, but the friend isn’t having it. The alienation he feels to the bike’s mechanisms is due to this past and future/present split: the extent that the friend wants to be involved with the bike is in riding it, not learning about its workings and applying them. The conceptual thinking makes him feel alienated from the bike riding that he wants to get out of the machine.

I feel like I often have the opposite problem: I sketch out the a priori circumstances I want to interact with and then am flustered when the exact principles are not met. Stuck up in my head too often, I feel alienated from the world far too much, not the other way around. Though the Kantian a priori concepts are useful–I don’t think I would be nearly as smart without a steady diet of them–I would also be much better served to give Hume more of his due. While its useful for the world to be thought of on this a priori plane and to be given to higher level thought, the fact that ultimately Hume is right needs to be acknowledged. Deciphering causation may be doable, but causation may also go beyond anything we can rightly observe or expect–the butterfly effect, if you will. It’s healthier and probably more Zen-like to realize that the present is all that exists, and that every second experienced is necessarily something completely brand new. Experiencing life as a unopened gift at every moment is a far more peaceful, colorful way to live.

I’ve got an entire ridiculous narrative in my head about this commercial. I imagine Kanye going home, seeing him tossing and turning in his sleep while Kobe saying, “but are you a different animal, and the same beast?” echoes in his head, and then staring up at the ceiling, realizing he’s not going to sleep, saying in a dejected voice, “what the fuck does that mean, Kobe Bryant?” Then there’s a montage of Kanye doing all kinds of cliched mental-block science-y things to try to solve this puzzle: pulling books off the shelf, flipping through them furiously, and upon realizing it’s not the right book, tossing it over his shoulder and continuing on with a new one; filling an entire chalkboard full of equations before frustratedly throwing down his piece of chalk; toying around with bunsen burners and complex tubing; throwing a bunch of papers in the air in exasperation, while possibly yelling, in escalation, “no, NO, NO!!” Then the eureka moment, he’s got his head in his hands, but he’s just came to some conclusion, maybe he’s saying, with some new hint of understanding, “a different animal, and… the same beast!” Then he’s hurriedly digging his phone out of the piles of paper on his desk and calling Rick Rubin, perhaps with some punny line about wanting to make a record. Then a montage of them working on recording a record, and bam, he’s holding Yeezus in his hands, and then  Rick Rubin says, “a different animal?” and Kanye responds, with assurance, “and the same beast.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman was an actor, but “acting” didn’t seem to quite encompass what he did. Others acted, often closely to the alternate definition common to everyday life: “acting confused”, “acting innocent”, “acting surprised”, “acting like x“, an imitation of someone else’s emotions or moods or quirks, but nevertheless a lie. Hoffman never felt like he was playing someone; he seemed to become them, to put not just the moment being captured onscreen of his character’s life, but the decades of life the person lived preceding it. The weariness, the sadness, the neediness (and yes, often with his roles, the creepiness), never scanned like a put on, a cloak to be taken off once the cameras stopped rolling. These facets felt as though they were built from years and years of turmoil and strife, set to explode at any moment.

Far too often these performances too place in movies miles below his skill, like a masterpiece hung up in a burned out shack. But the distance between him and the garbage around him made his work that much more impressive, a distinct seismic event in what are mostly dreary, vanilla plots and uninspired support work. Fostering this special alchemy in sterile conditions showed as well just how much this meant to him, how little the quality of the rest of the movie was allowed to affect the quality of his own work. It’s probably not worth revisiting the likes of Patch AdamsMission Impossible III, or Along Came Polly, but for the explosive energy Hoffman brings to every scene he is in. As an uptight med student, a cold-blooded psychopath, and a lovable fuck up, respectively, he shows not just the amazing range he has, but also just how stiff his far more famous counterparts–Robin Williams, Tom Cruise, and Ben Stiller–look in comparison, and how little belief one can put in the performances they are putting on.

This apprehending of another person’s life showed tiny crevices caused by years of erosion that might be missed if you didn’t pay attention. His best role, as Lancaster Dodd in The Master, is almost all sculpting by the seas of time. A warm, benevolent leader of a cult, he nonetheless possesses an air of mystery. Dodd is “open” but in a way that hides his true character, his inviting you into a persona that is what he wants you to think but isn’t the actual him. Hoffman carries this off with such delicate precision that the compassionate, emotionally-available facade doesn’t become apparent until near the end of the movie.

A well-meaning follower asks about a difference in verbiage between Dodd’s first book and newly published second book, a inquiry he quickly deflects with a claim about what possibilities the new words hold; when she presses the matter Dodd explodes swiftly, fantastically, and embarrassingly, for only a moment, before quickly reverting back to his cool self. Up to that point it appeared the leader was drinking his own Kool-Aid as well, and that his calmly sageism was not affectation but the real person. The questioning, though, showed a crack, and revealed a bit of the self-doubting, secretive, cunning personality under his cuddly outward manner.

This complexity is what made Hoffman a master himself, that he could give so much breadth and feel so lived-in with characters he plays for all of an hour onscreen, and to put so much just under the surface that we have to unpack as the movie goes along. Dodd appeared to be convinced of his own ideas, and it was completely believable when he blew up earlier–once at Freddie, and once at an unbeliever–that his outrage was from the questioning of the foundations of his movement. But the simple difference found between him and a follower, on a matter the follower just wanted clarified, showed that the fulcrum from which these outbursts sprung was his ego. In another instance, or rather the general aura of the role, is the answer he provides to the question, “how do people end up in cults like this?” Hoffman does the delicate dance of not wanting people to follow him, but wanting people to want to follow him, with an elixir of charisma, confidence, withholding, and warmth. People don’t follow this preacher because he’s not a preacher, but the most cunning salesman you will ever meet.

When we lose an actor of Hoffman’s abilities, it is tempting to unpack the “under the surface” acting as actually under the surface of the character, the movie, and the plot, and that we are cutting to the bone of the actual person playing the role. Specifically with the characters in Hoffman’s oeuvre, you want to see the suffering and alienation as things Hoffman brought with him to the screen, not learned to emulate. While there are a number of good pieces on that subject–Richard Brody’s excellent piece for The New Yorker Online comes to mind–I’m in no position, psychoanalytically, personality-wise or otherwise, to assume any of these things. What I can speak of, though is what Hoffman offered us on the screen and on the stage. It was a gift, one that we see only a few times a generation, and whatever it ended up costing him to deliver it, one still feels greedy having given so little in return.

There’s a passage in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a book I can’t recommend highly enough) that describes something similar to the feeling I had for Deafheaven’s Sunbather upon first hearing it. One of the narrator’s riding companions explained how her daughter had visited the Great Plains at some point previously, had been overwhelmed by the magnitude of it, and had tried to capture that with her camera. To her disappointment, the pictures turned out bland and ineffectual, a sordid simulacrum of the feeling the actual place gave her. The frame of the camera was not able to hold the experience of what it felt like to be there, to see nothing but grasses, yes, but stretching for miles and miles in every direction, seemingly endlessly.

Sunbather was the picture of the Great Plains to me at first. I’d “heard good things”, as is usually the case when trying out something new, and gave it a once-over, skipping around between tracks to see what it was about. Initial reactions were negative; I’d heard a lot of loud guitars and a guy screaming, not something I’m usually about. I wouldn’t say I’m not a fan of metal (because, frankly, the concept seems a bit silly to me), but my knowledge of it was shallow and my tastes tended towards a lighter brand of music. This seemed like something I’d never get.

I deleted it from my computer and moved on, but for whatever reason I got the inkling to give it another try a few weeks later. I don’t exactly remember what prompted it–maybe I’d heard something that stuck with me, maybe I was just bored with whatever I was listening to at the time, maybe (and most likely) the sheer volume of positive press for it made me feel obligated to give it another go–but I re-downloaded it and tried it again. This time, it floored me. The loudness that was obnoxious on the first pass gained depth, an endless abyss of pain and longing that shone through. Despite the incomprehensible lyrics the singer’s agony was undeniable, a desperation magnified by the rolling waves of guitars and drums, unrelenting with each pass. The Great Plains metaphor works perfect here: it’s difficult to capture just how it feels to be sitting inside the storm as it passes around you, while your audience is at peace. The signified does not have a just signifier when it comes to things like this.

It makes me think about what else I might have let pass without a second thought. I got lucky with this, as I recovered one of my new favorite albums because A) the internet is a bottomless pit of illegal behavior, and B) time was not a factor in my ability to give this a second chance (as in, I could have waited another week and this album would be completely unchanged). But I think on what else I might have seen as the daughter’s photos of the Great Plains, of wonder reduced to boredom. What things I may have been too tired, too lazy, too self-absorbed to give a proper chance to? What experiences, what relationships, what joy and pain, what love and loss might I have just let pass right in front of me, within reach but completely ignored, for comfortable but dull embrace of the familiar?