Sunday, December 14, 2008


But allow me to digress. Allow me to regress. Allow me to readdress myself back, back, back in time to let’s say. Oh. Where and when I lived with my forgiving and loving bride 30 years or so ago. Allow me to send myself and you back to a rather poor, beat-within-an-inch-of-its-life flat in Syracuse, New York, where I read books and wrote papers and was poor. Bassett was the street. A poor, sad-eyed homophone-of-a-street.

We were middling poor, what with me going to school and Pat nursing. We had the one car. The one green car her parents gave us. I think our rent was $140 a month, and that included utilities. Our furniture was junk pulled out of somebody’s garage and doused in varnish remover. A normal meal was hotdog casserole or macaroni and cheese, sometimes meatloaf, when we could afford it. I walked a mile to school and back, down streets and across a park where people were occasionally robbed or raped or murdered or all of these.

Those were the days, as I dim-wittedly dodged knives and bullets on my way, back and forth to school, in which I was both a grad student and a teacher. In which I taught a variety of students a variety of subjects, all of them having to do either with writing or literature. In which I was the particular sort of an indentured servant called a teaching assistant.

And Syracuse was the place where I read my early Plato, my Aristotle, my Bloom, my Campbell, my Brooks, my Wittgenstein, my Clive Bell, my Kant, my Tolstoy, my Beardsley, my Freud, my Jung, my Santayana, my Frye, my Arnold, my Saussure, my Warren, my Ransom, my Leavis, my Barthes, my Levi-Strauss, my Chomsky, and my horde of other literary critics and philosophers, along with literature itself, my Shakespeare, my D.H. Lawrence, my Yeats, my Williams, my Pound, my Woolf, my Faulkner, my Dos Passos, my Beckett, my Ionesco, my Camus, my James, my Forster, my Carver, my Melville, my Flaubert, my Swift, my Donne, my Herbert, my Eliot, my Dostoyevsky, my Wordsworth, my Coleridge, my Shelley, my Pope, my Milton, my Ibsen, my Chekov, my Neruda, my Borges, my Cheever, my Gogol, my Keats, my Browning, my Dickens, my Stendhal, my Bishop, my Thomas, my Heaney, my Carruth, my Dillard, my Whitman, my Hawthorne, my Twain, my Golding, my Updike, my Pynchon, my Lowell, my Hughes, my Lewis, my Ford, my Sinclair, my West, my Roethke, my Hemingway, my Joyce, my Fielding, my Richardson, my Defoe, my Wilde, my Conrad, my Hardy, my Cervantes, my Homer, my Frost, my Millay, Aeschylus, my Euripides, my Sophocles, my O’Connor, my Virgil, my Bunyan, my Samuel Butler, my Cummings, my Turgenev, my Goethe, my. My, my, my, one does go on!

And one of the questions that insinuated itself into me. Wormed its little way in through my ear and into my brain and wouldn’t leave. Wouldn’t be shaken out. Was the question that goes something like this: “If literature is an imitation of life, what in us is it imitating?” And its corollary: “If literature is made for reading, what is reading literature made for?”

In other words, why do we need it? Why do we want it? Why do we look for it? What is its use? Yes, it certainly serves the economically and politically powerful in exhaustively and boringly elaborated ways. But it also serves the powerless. Stories and poems and plays seem egalitarian in their service to everyone, everywhere. But what, beyond reinforcing political and economic ideas, is literature serving in us? Why do we put up with the brainwashing aspect? Why isn’t law and custom and social sanction and the exercise of direct political and economic power sufficient to reinforce political and economic interests? Why literature, in particular?

Why all these replicas? These representations? These imitations? Why all this dangerous and expensive and circuitous and labyrinthine and distracting and refracting and indirect and ramifying and recursive and recalcitrant and philosophically illegitimate and illogical and irrational and emotional and morally slippery and impractical frou-frou?

Background. Plato first writes about mimesis or imitation or representation or acting or reciting or presenting a simulacrum in Ion and The Republic. Aristotle picks up the discussion later. And others, down through the ages, have tried to understand what goes on between plays, poetry, narratives, novels, stories, music, dance, art, film, etc. and us. Why we make these things, which I’ll call simulacra for lack of a better word. How we use these things. What their function is. Why they exist. What good they are or do.

And of course the opinions are all over the map. Plato begins the discussion by having Socrates assert that the actor and by extension and implication the poet or story-teller don’t really know anything. They have no truth to convey. They have no particular skill or craftsmanship. They are merely inspired. They are divinely inspired to a kind of madness. Truth is the province of the philosopher only. (If he were alive and writing today, he’d probably say philosophers, mathematicians, physicists, and scientists only.) And these stories and plays and art and all other simulacra are therefore mere entertainments. And to the extent they may mislead people and convince them of things that are false, they may in fact be quite dangerous.

So I did quite a bit of reading at the time. And some since. And some thinking. I won’t go through it all. It’s boring and irritating. Tedious. I list some of it above. I circuitously touch on some of it in previous posts, and I’m certain I will in future posts.

So please allow me to skip most of that and arrive immediately in the present. And this present is. Oh. Maybe an eight to ten year ongoing sort of a present.

And in this rather fluid sort of a present, here’s what I’ve come to, propositionally speaking, and in no particular order of precedence or importance: (1) We do think by story, by image, by character unfolding, by accumulating narrative meaning; (2) Our hearts do most of our useful thinking, with the assistance of our heads; (3) Our hearts use words and actions and images and smells and color and flavor and sounds and the feel of a thing to reason about it—but always our hearts place these sensations in the context of a story, a narrative, a timeline, a sequence, with character implicit, imputed, or invented, no matter how minimally realized or referenced; (4) Character is our principal way of entering the world of simulacra, our principal construct through which we extract meaning; (5) Good tragedy presents us with one or more characters who are greater in some respect (usually morally or in their capacity for suffering) than we are; (6) Good comedy presents us with one or more characters who are just about the same as we are, in morality and moral capacity; (7) In both, the most credible protagonists are flawed; (8) Congenitally, we prefer comedy, given half a chance, because it aligns with a terminal orientation toward hope and purpose, a capacity for love and forgiveness and generosity, that is emergent and ascendant and insistent in us; (9) Comedy tends toward resolution, restoration, love, forgiveness, and redemption, while Tragedy tends toward dissolution, destruction, death, suffering, and judgment, and we choose which of these orientations we will like best and perhaps have, ourselves; (10) Poetry (of which song lyrics are a species) is still one of our most powerful and pervasive story-telling techniques; (11) Simulacra (e.g. plays, novels, short stories, poems, songs, TV shows, painting, sculpture, dance, music, etc.) all find their home in narrative, in plot, in sequence; (12) Simulacra are all metaphors in which we imaginatively place ourselves to think usefully and operationally about our lives and one another and the world and God; (13) Metaphor is how we figure we can possibly know anything; (14) We make figures-tropes-metaphors in order to think about or know anything; (15) Most propositional argument—philosophical discourse—is built with metaphor; (15) Most propositional knowledge is explained through the use of narrative or narrative reference, no matter how minimal; (16) Beauty is always (but not only) what we are looking for in simulacra—beauty in character, in event, in appearance, in sound, in movement, in shape, or in expression—as though it were our purpose in coming to simulacra in the first place; (17) Meaning is always (but not only) what we are looking for in literature, and when a work of literature is well done, meaning and beauty become one; (18) Words themselves are metaphors, in a sense, rather arbitrary sounds and marks standing for things and ideas and emotions that only they make present and comprehensible; (19) Grammar and syntax taken together as semantic structure is a metaphor for action and stasis, for living itself.

Oh, I know. What I’ve done here is skip the proof. Skip the steps in the mathematical proof. Or proofs. Skipped the argument and the evidence and gone straight to the conclusions. It’s wrong. It’s illegitimate. It’s backward. It’s non-linear. It’s convoluted. It’s anti-intellectual. It’s non-verifiable. It’s an outrage. It’s not to be trusted. It comes out of pure air. Pure blue air. If this were a Freshman essay, I’d give it an F.

And another thing. These propositions (and others like them) are to this blog as quarks are to atoms, and to all else that I write. Or know. Or think I know. I think.

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