Tuesday, January 8, 2019

A New Year's Note for 2019

On these "pages" (!) I have railed against New Years wrap-ups - particularly when they are pleas for pity due to misfortune on the one hand, or medals and awards for hard won accomplishments (self improvement) on the other. That was before this phrase "virtue signaling" entered the lexicon (one of manifold vogue words or phrases to enter the 2000s). Now my problem with such public pronouncements is not that they are insincere or egotistic. On the contrary, I have no doubt that people are genuine in their motives and that they have virtues for which they should be proud, and I am inwardly most happy at the thought that there are individuals who have overcome the worst forms of privation or injustice and, when requested and appropriate,  I might express my verdict publicly as well.  Not only do I not hold it against anybody who aims to improve their life and hopefully succeed in doing so, but I made most happy at the thought, regardless of content or context.  I am also one of those people that believe that other people actually have real beliefs and that those beliefs are rarely cynical covers for status seeking and so on. And if there is a cynical component it is also invariably accompanied by sincerity. I believe in belief, as it were.

None of the foregoing means in any way that one should go on about such matters at all times and to all people. Now there are some great exceptions to this. There are some issues that are, objectively speaking, always, already a federal case.  But these are far fewer than we realize or the more civic minded among us would wish.  Examples are serious crimes or violence to individuals or populations, natural disasters, the effects of climate change, But as a favorite philosopher Bernard Williams pointed out, humans need a place or space for nonmoral values, things that fall outside the category of obligation. Part of the the problem in my case is how and when I was raised: I was taught not to advertise oneself and herald what one has accomplished. I guess it was seen as excessively immodest. For me the aesthetic downside of such flag waving and parading compromised whatever virtues the individual's story possessed for the reader or listener.

This past year has been marked by enormous change, change far greater than I am frankly as able to live with as I should like. For thirty plus years of my life I lived in one of the largest cities in the northeastern United States, and in the downtown city part. mind you, not any of the suburbs or exurbs. Now I find myself living in a culture, geography, even world, seemingly opposite in every way to that which I was not only accustomed but also innately loved. To say this has been a challenge would be an understatement. I believe it is also harder to do this at the age of fifty than, say, thirty or even forty. (For me, anyway). One of the bright moments is I have been most prolific. I am working on more than one instrumental large scale composition as well as work for small groups and solo piano. I also plan to go into the recording studio soon, and am looking into the possibilities of a podcast! Another bright location is I have found immense goodness, from both humans and nonhuman nature, where I now live.
Nic Roeg's use of typical 1970s wallpaper - often found in dental offices

Recently a favorite filmmaker, Nicholas Roeg, died and I was put in mind, when reflecting on my own experience of this world from the time I was first aware of being conscious, of his The Man Who Fell To Earth, in particular the opening sequence. Now I do not have the ability to do a shot by shot analysis of the whole thing but heaven knows it would be worth doing, so masterful a piece of filmmaking it is (like all of Roeg, in fact). While we are on the subject of Nicholas Roeg, here is an excerpt from a paper I wrote wayback in 1987 on his Don't Look Now, comparing the characters of the Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland characters:
Now I don't have the space to go into all of the intricacy that is Man Who Fell To Earth, but I want to concentrate on the opening sequence which in a sense depicts the falling to earth of a being from another society/planet/life - take your pick. (Indeed Roeg maintained that the movie was not science fiction proper but was a bout a person who was unusual and an extreme nonconformist, almost as if Roeg, like fellow genius, Andrei Tarkovsky, simply didn't buy the literalism of whole notion of genre and generic rules.  David Bowie suggested much the same thing in an interview: "…it's assumed he's an alien from outer space, but it may not necessarily be true".

There are no documents of the opening screen online in their original form but here is one with an added soundtrack from David Bowie (not the original instrumental 1970s styled music which I consider actually appropriate to the scene).https://youtu.be/gY4FOSaSoDo

Thematically The Man Who Fell to Earth is part of a very long line of artistic works that negotiate or think about the question of what it means to be an insider or outsider, Although Roeg was an English director this concern with the tension between the individual and the collective has also been important in American arts and letters from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter to Ralph Ellison's  Invisible Man.  The best world of art on this theme finally do not have all the answers. I mean narratively we know, see, and experience empathically the bowie figures descent into ruin and a kind of alcoholism, among other problems and it is made clear in no uncertain terms that the United States, or at least the United States of 1973 did this to him. That is less important than the feeling we get watching the film. In this film, like in all great films the feeling is what matters rather than the fact.

Now the thing to notice in this sequence is this man literally falls into earth - evidently into, at least initially, a more rural part of the United States. He appears to have trouble walking in the whole mass of soil and dirt and the slope of a mountain, but also seems guided in his walking by force not entirely his own. He is then is inundated with shocking and sudden stimuli of various kinds, not only unknown images what looks to be a poor family of some kind but a drunk man yelling things at Bowie and finally some kind of garish and loud amusement park figure in the shape of a smiley face. Overwhelmed, the Bowie figure collapses on a bench outside a small town antique store. We in the audience are placed in the same position as the protagonist through the visual telling of the sequence. This is a most important example of Roeg's cinematic style, a kind of associative cutting that is not about forward momentum or events inside linear time, but a (visually) poetic linking of one thing or group of things with another.

I mention this opening to suggest that in many (but not all) important ways, the world has appeared  to the present fifty-one year old author as it does in the opening of this picture from 1974. That is, I am faced with a lot of stimuli and do not immediately form a conceptual system to integrate it into a narrative whole. This has both advantages as much as disadvantages.  The feeling of being an outsider can be a function not of any complex emotional symbolism or ideas and ideals about how the world should work but a function of the shocking newness of the world's aesthetics which is on a level far before the complex emotions of ethical evaluation. Sometimes the world appears to you a plastic multicolored smiley face from an abandoned theme park and you have to find a way to move past it or get around it - if you aren't forced to laugh - all the while wondering where it came from and what it is doing there.

One of my favorite philosophers George Kateb has the concept of what he calls "positive alienation" where alienation is a source of independence of mind that is fruitful and possessed of wisdom rather than anything pejorative having to do with loneliness proper. Most recently I have become a partial sort of relativist, convinced that there is not an Archimedean point where we can evaluate an d master everything all at once, Now by relativist I am not referring to the inability to know or the inability to be wrong or right about proper conduct. I mean that much of human life comes down not to right and wrong which actually concern a small area of life, (though an area of life that has greatest emotional intensity for us as if it were all, rather than a small part, of life) but to things like fashion and preference rather than objectivity. And when I use the word fashion I mean something considerably sturdier and longer lasting than trend or fad, close to what the word culture used to mean. One of the problems in our current moment is that the bigness of our technological society and the need to integrate so many billions of people (or, rather, the belief that we ought to so integrate) is at odds with the differences among all those many people, differences that make integration not really attainable.

I close with another video,  this one an excerpt from an experimental film on Roeg that I happened across.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Another Very Brief Note On Isaiah Berlin

I have been enamored with the thought, writing, and even the oratory of Isaiah Berlin ever since I first discovered his work sometime in the early to middle 1990s, that I never tire of discovering newer things about him or finding new applications of his work to current events and everyday non-academic life.

I want to focus on a particular move he always makes which forms but one part of his general wisdom. What he always does is to start by having what appears to be this comprehensive gaze, looking at wide reaches of vast historical time and its accompanying thought, chiefly among these his analysis of the great Romantic revolution and how it basically upended the entirety of the traditional/ ancient, as well as classical worlds.

But Berlin's move is always to go as deep into what he is describing almost as the greatest lawyer for the defense would, and still further as someone living inside or even born into the world he is describing.

Isaiah Berlin will go deep into whatever it is and then he will reverse course, suddenly pull back and outwards and say something to the effect of "but of course this world or object I am examining is far from perfect, is not entirely correct and needs some kind of countervailing force or dissent".

This move forms the basis of Berlin's worldview, not only his pluralism, but an attitude towards being in the world. It is the attitude of one who wished to be seemingly a skeptic and believer at one and the same time. Some might see it as the mark of an essentially moderate or centrist cast of mind. But this is not exactly right. The word that comes closest is that much debated word liberal. It is very close to the cast of mind of yours truly.

A good example of Berlin's brilliance as orator can be found here:

Unlike today's "thought leaders" Berlin was a genuine public intellectual. The thought leader today all too often advocates for a very specific case or cause, even an ideology. The public intellectual in Isaiah Berlin's sense sought to bring subjects into the widest public discourse with an aim at exploration and even genuine enjoyment.

The example I want to use is in his essay "The Sense Of Reality" which was delivered at Smith College in Northampton, in 1956. He takes a wonderfully long time discussing how  some humans have noted that some things seem inevitable in a natural and/or mechanical sense, while still others take the contrary view that things seem not inevitable but rather unpredictable, as "artificially" willed into existence and predicated on contingency, even randomness.  In short, how both contrary attitudes seem apparent at different times and in different reigning orders:

"Everyone, no doubt, believes that there are factors that are largely or wholly beyond conscious human control. And when we describe this or that scheme as impractical or Utopian we often mean that it cannot be realized in the face of such uncontrollable facts or processes. These are of so many kinds: regions of nature with which we cannot interfere, for example the solar system, or the general realm dealt with by astronomy; there we can alter neither the state of the entities in question nor the laws which they obey." 

Berlin goes on at great length in this vein, even discussing the reaction against mechanistic or reductionist views, for example, the influence of Hegel as well as Darwin and Marx. He admits, and not with any diminution of respect, that we have much to learn from such developments. indeed in one passage he is unabashed in his passion for the greatness of certain minds in history:

"It is when one of these nerves is touched, nerves which lie so deep within us that it is in terms of them that we feel as we feel and think as we think, that we are conscious of those electric shocks that indicate that some genuinely profound insight has occurred. It is only when this unique, immediately recognizable, disturbing experience comes that we are in the presence of this peculiar and very rare form of genius, possessed by those who make us conscious of the most pervasive, least observed categories, those which lie closest to us and for that very reason escape description, however much our emotions, our curiosity, our industry, are mobilized to record the whole of what wee know." 

How different this is than the current view which would only interrogate with suspicion or dismiss with disparagement "great" minds from the past!

Berlin is describing the unparalleled excitement that comes with a kind of discovery or breakthrough with more customary and traditional ways of knowing, and a development that is inseparable from the "specialness" of certain minds who appear to make the breakthrough. Partisans of rationality and the Enlightenment are right to conclude from passages like these that Berlin is never entirely in "their" camp, however much he respected their tradition. Why Isaiah Berlin matters is that he refused, for the most part, to be solidly in any discernible camp, neither fully rationalist, nor fully romantic.

But then he goes on:

"For Marxists and, indeed, all those that social or individual life is wholly determined by laws at least in principle discoverable, men are weaker than they supposed in their pre-scientific pride; they are calculable and in principle capable of omniscience. but as we ordinarily think of ourselves, especially as historians or men of action - that is, when we are dealing with particular individuals and things and facts - we see a very different spectacle of men governed by few natural laws; falling into error, defeated, victims of one another, through ignorance not of laws, but largely of the results of human acts, those being most successful who possess (apart from such, which is perhaps indispensable) a combination of will-power and a capacity for non-scientific, non-generalizing assessments of specific situations ad hoc; which leads to a picture of men as free, sometimes strong, and largely ignorant that is the precise contrary of the scientific view of them as weak, determined and potentially omniscient." 

I love how he pairs omniscience and weakness here, contrary to usual habits which would have us think that the position of omniscience would usher in only maximum strength. But above all, as always, he says science alone is never enough. We live today in a world dominated by two views, one you could call religious (and/or spiritual) and the other scientific. Though the scientific and the spiritual are thought to be opposites (with the important exception of those who hold that both science and religion tell essentially the same story, or work and evolve in tandem) they both have a consensus and similarity that is less positive: in both there exists a rule bound sense of determination. A law is a law whiter given by a supernatural force or scientific proof or discovery and these appear to pronounce upon what is to be done.

The scientific view is the dominant one in our current epoch, for it claims to the fullest knowledge possible at any given time - which is considered to be something like a final argument. Indeed, science is so dominant that it is practically a requirement when any subject is broached in major media outlets, it seems de rigueur  to always say "what the science has to say" on the given subject - whether we are discussing eating and nutrition, music appreciation and performance, or ethics and morality, and. of course, sexual behaviors. I am reminded of a recent podcast on dreams which was all about what science tells us dreams in fact actually are rather than what people have simply always thought about them since the latter might appear self evidently inadequate. This is a very different way of discussing dreams than as a source of both mystery and revelation, or as a mere entertainment to pass the time.

Another important thing to note about Isaiah Berlin is his influence on prominent and helpful minds who are currently active. Berlin's work never becomes dated and is applicable to real life situations rather than mere academic speculation or specialization. To name only two: Timothy Snyder, the political historian and commentator and contemporary philosopher  Kwame Anthony Appiah are both deeply influenced by Isaiah Berlin.

 I think Berlin points to something that is neither science nor spirit exactly. It doesn't not contradict nor challenge these but does not wave the flag for them either. This "something else" of Berlin refuses systemization; it might refuse even definition, and Isaiah Berlin held it to be real. In much the same way that he though freedom itself was a real fact of human existence, and thus of reality. Yet the only way Berlin was able to conclude as he did was to pass through a great many views that had come before him and enter into such views with the greatest sympathy, even if the views in question were initially alien to him or at least not far from intuitive or self evident. To me, such a process or style of thought is itself one kind of wisdom.