Monday, January 15, 2018

A Time Of Beauty

Image result for alchemy

(Continued from Birthday & The Man)

- What are coincidences then?
- Reversals. Improbable events reversing expectation of the probable.
- If they are merely improbabilities, why do we feel like they mean something?
- Because we feel like we deserve to expect them.
- Expecting improbability? Improbabilities become probable?
- Yes! I mentioned Amazon last time. I'm want to tell you about my experience with that company. But first let me say I spent all my life avoiding the world Amazon typifies, all my life up until a few years ago. I got out. I ran away. I judged that a good life was improbable in the America of money and only money. And this is what I want to tell you: I was right. All those years of being out, now that I'm in, partly in, I look back on as a time of beauty.
- A time of beauty.
- You object to the phrase?
- How does coincidence fit in?
- Coincidence tells you that your decision based on probability, which after all is all we ever have to go on, was correct.
- 'They' tell you: who is that 'they'? How are coincidences a 'they'?
- We have to decide the must important things in our lives based on probabilities, and sometimes when we do, and are right, improbabilities start assembling themselves; and what I think is they are telling us things are different now, that turning our backs on, calculating probabilities in the world we knew, we were right in how we decided.
- 'They' are telling us?
- As beauty speaks to us: improbability, coincidence is the world getting our attention, notifying us in advance the probability of the return of love. You accept that the world can speak to us with its beauty?
- Yes, I think I do. Reversals of probabilities, when they involve our own lives, are somehow beautiful. Tell me about Amazon.
- A company about money and only money. A company that exists to provide quantities of things cheaper and monopolize markets. Quantity and cheapness has made them the world's largest retailer and granted them monopoly status. Like the products sold, employees are cheap and handled in multitudes. Employee costs in relation to profits are minimal. Computer programs record every movement of every employee, measuring efficiency second by second. But a surprise is in store for you when newly hired you show up to work. No manager is there. You are expected to train yourself by following around the other employees. Amazon has managers, but their salaries are so much greater than yours that it is not efficient for them to show up and manage you. In fact, the managers are managed in the same way themselves, their efficiency controlled by other managers whose own efficiency is monitored by other managers.
- Everyone is watching and no one is managing. How is that efficient?
- Without the monopoly profits it wouldn't be. But as this is a company about money and only money, management is not competent to do anything else. In its surveillance of employees by employees themselves surveilled the company never sees a human being, no manager ever decides like a human being. It's amazing. It's the end of the world. The employees hate the company, hate what they are doing, and have no interest in the other employees they immediately see hate the company and what they are doing. Why bother discussing it with each other?
- You misunderstood me earlier. I wasn't objecting to your 'time of beauty.' I was thinking rather that this kind of, as you put it, listening to the world is something entirely different from probability: it is all or nothing. Similarly, I think you're saying of our world of money it too is an absolute in the way it talks to us. Am I right?
- Yes. Beauty or its opposite: if they address themselves to us even for a moment they spread out in memory and imagination occupying everything there is.
- But still. If you had made an effort and talked to the employees maybe they'd have turned out to have lives just like yours.
- Unlikely. Probabilities are important. Time is limited. It was time to go.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Correspondences


(Continued from Birthday & The Man)

- What we said about Goethe's Elective Affinities,* that it was the opposite of the romantic call to accept passion as opposed to reason I always thought it was, I have to admit is hard for me to accept. I looked back at Goethe's views on nature, and found, in fact, they were in accord with our dismissal of thinking of ourselves as things moved by things, parts moved by parts. For him science was or ought to be like perception: seeing things as a whole, seeing how things were composed. But -
- Yes?
- In Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship there are major religious and mystical elements: a whole separate novel is inserted of a woman who wishes to live entirely in religious feeling; and in the main story there is another woman who has an intimate relation with astronomical movements, with the stars and the planets, with the Cosmos. What do you make of this?
- I'm afraid you'll think I'm joking.
- 'It seems my fate to be in the wrong with you about the smallest things. I must be very good-natured to overlook such an unfailing superiority as yours.' **
- Fine. Jonas, you remember, the author of The Phenomenon Of Life, describes life as an interrelation with the world, involved in the world by feeling its intrusions, and willing in turn to intrude on it, in a constant movement that retains the form of life, with the goal of self preservation through constant remaking of itself. 'Will' and 'feeling' are not, he says, facts about the world: they are not parts of things put in movement against other parts. They involve a sense of direction. That is, they involve a selection between possible arrangements of the world. Freedom of how to speak of the world, how to see the world, arises out of the fixed 'vocabulary' of things come to be known.
- We respond to the world, we feel it, and willing it to take on a preferred arrangement we act on it.
- Yes. The character who is detached from the world in religious feeling can be seen to be, by an act of will, standing back from the world, being 'the knower of the field'. And the character who's in intimate relation to the cosmos, and can perhaps act on it to make it better, that reflects the capacity life has to will the world into shape. Well?
- Here's the thing. Brain scientists, neurophysicists, whatever they are calling themselves now, they imagine they don't feel and don't will. They call mental states epiphenomena. That is, things in a world of parts moving parts but which themselves don't have parts therefore can't be anything. How can people be so stupid? They say they know how to talk about the world and if some part of the world doesn't let them talk that way they say it must not be in the world. Where is it then?
- A good question. Do you know, I think the reason, as you put it, they can be so stupid is that they know the experience of making an error in their conclusions, dumping the bad idea, and backtracking.
- But dumping a bad idea, a logical progression or scheme of classification, is not the same as dumping knowledge of your own experience.
- It is, if you never consider these kinds of questions.
- And they don't.
- They never consider these kind of questions because they can't imagine how the freedom that comes of not having parts acting on each other is related to the lack of freedom in having parts acting on each other.
- Can you?
- Has Goethe given you any ideas?
- Yes and no. Sometimes he seems to believe in meaningful coincidences, fate, a personal destiny, the world taking on a form that suits our will; other times he seems to be making fun of the idea, for example showing that when Wilhelm thought he was pursuing his own way in life actually a secret society had been guiding his fate.
- Try putting that together with Goethe's views on nature.
- The science he said he wanted to do was of making representations, rather than explanations.
- Yes. We know that when science looks for a relation of explanations to each other it looks for whether the parts in one move the parts in the other. What is the relation of representations to each other?
- I don't know.
- What about when we talk?
- Yes, you already said that with a fixed vocabulary we have infinite freedom in ways of combining words into sentences. Representations are kinds of symbols. But how does that solve our problem?
- Our feeling of the world is a perception of the world, of how what we see is composed as a whole, and this knowledge, coming about through our body's response to the world, is unfree, part acting on part. But the will's use of that perception, how it puts it together with other perceptions, is unlimited, like the unlimited way of combining words into sentences. That perception, knowledge, feeling all arise together gives will something to grab hold of, without being tied to, or determined by.
- I can't say I'm convinced.
- Then let's return to Wilhelm Mesiter's Apprenticeship and the strange confusion of fate that is being followed and directed at the same time. The coincidences that occur in the story and Wilhelm thinks are fate but may really have been staged by the benevolent secret society: the staging can be like feeling, the act of the world on us, that is also perception and knowledge, and his impression of fate is his will to make his life his own.
- And why the coincidences?
- They are like words in a sentence that seem to go together, to be representing the world, but where the sentence goes, how it concludes, is up to him. I'll tell you something that happened last night in the courtyard up the street. A very well dressed woman in her late 60s sat down on the bench next to me, first time anyone had done that in the month I'd been going there. I strike up a conversation with her: she takes out a notebook and starts writing down words - in Catalan, French, English - suggested to her by the objects nearby, the color of my thermal flask, the name of the man on the cover of magazine in her lap, the words or subjects from our conversation struggling through bits of many languages. Separating parts of words from each other, these parts she then interpreted and connected to the other words, or their parts. And these words and suggestions were related to her recent experiences, places she had been and the words associated with them or seen there. She makes sure, she says, connections lead her in a positive direction. This was a first coincidence: I'd hours before finished reading Pullman's new fantasy La Belle Sauvage, in which a clockwork (but mysterious exactly how) device, the alethiometer, in response to questions, reads out symbols that yield layer upon layer of interpretations. The elegant woman tells me she wants to write to Amazon, the internet retailer, about something she's discovered. She takes out a metal box of pastilles, on the lid the brand 'Bezos', also the name of Amazon's founder. I tell her that Amazon's grocery delivery service I briefly worked for in L.A. has its Barcelona warehouse occupying the next block's interior courtyard, the block where I'm staying. Another coincidence. And then she, on the subject of these courtyards inside residential blocks, tells me the drug company Beyer which she once worked for, and I too once worked for in Budapest, used to be here in this courtyard before the city cleared it out to be reopened to the public. There I sit every day using the wifi from the Toyota showroom along one side.
- Good thing you don't write novels.
- You'll have to excuse me if my coincidences don't stand up against Goethe's. Like the times we live in they are mostly commercial: objects exchanged as if people involved don't matter, rather than the reverse, exchange of objects that don't matter except in their bringing people together.*** But that only makes it clearer, doesn't it?
- What clearer?
- That the coincidences are objects, parts of things tied to parts of things, meaningless in themselves, freely made use of to make our relation to people better.

Further Reading:
A Time Of Beauty
________________________
* Elective Affinities
** Denis Diderot, 'Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage' (1772)
*** See Marcel Mauss

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Elective Affinities

Goethe (Stieler 1828).jpg

(Continued From Birthday & The Man)

- This talk of science, individuality, society, is putting me out, putting me off. I can't even talk.
- Sure you can.
- An individual's life ought to be naturally, reasonably, intelligently worked into society. Making the different parts involved and how they relate to each other the subject of conversation doesn't begin to tell me how to do that.
- What does?
- Stories of people trying.
- I'm listening.
- We've looked at Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.* Goethe's last novel, according to him his best and requiring three readings for full comprehension, was Elective Affinities. The title refers to an account of the way two chemical elements that are compounded together, in the presence of another compound of two elements, each of the two joined elements separates, and each of the two parts of each compound joins instead to one of the two parts of the other compound.
- The compounds separate only to combine with the separated elements of the other compound.
- Yes. At the beginning of the story the chemical dance of changing partners comes up in conversation, with obvious application to present company: the rich aristocrat Eduard, his wife Charlotte, the Eduard's friend the Captain who's come to stay, and his wife's absent, but under consideration for invitation, protege Ottilie. Charlotte immediately observes such application would be an unrealistic simplification.
- Which is Goethe's position?
- We'll get there. An aristocrat, it is said in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, must make a show of good breeding, but need not actually have it and consequently usually doesn't. Eduard and his wife in Elective Affinities had both made previous marriages of convenience, though they were in love with each other even then, and only the death of both their spouses allowed them ten years later to marry.
- Marriages of convenience evidence of living more for show than natural impulse.
- Yes. Now it comes to pass that Eduard falls in love with the invited Ottilie, his wife to a lesser extent with the Captain. All four characters have the syllable 'ott' in their names: the Captain's name is Otto, that is also one of Eduard's names, his wife's name is Charlotte, and then there's Ottilie. We said about science that it relates classes of parts of things to classes of parts of things. The parts of things in the class are treated as if they were identical, varying from each other only in place or movement. In tableau vivants organized at the castle living people enact famous pictures, according to the narrator improving upon them but leaving an uneasy feeling in the audience: the living have become 'elements' in the picture, parts of themselves that have their being among parts of other people and the background of the scene presented.
- What's Goethe's point? Eduard and his wife were proper aristocrats, making a show of good breeding. Then, when opportunity arises and love interests more to their taste arrive, they - again? - in acting on their passion are merely putting on a show, they've lowered themselves to the status of elements of a picture? They're all instances of "otts", are drops of chemicals, dabs of paint?
- So it would seem. The prime activity of Eduard, his family, his friends, and employees is remaking the extensive grounds of the castle into parkland, drawing out its beauty, making it a show of itself. The characters live in a strict hierachy: Eduard is served by his wife, she by her protege Ottilie, Ottilie by her own protege and numerous servants, and below them all: the poor. Special police are employeed to keep beggers away from the family and friends' elaborate celebrations of birthdays, that is, their shows to the glory of themselves and their 'quality'.
- How does the story end?
- To be guilty of a simplification like the analogy of elective affinities itself: Ottilie and Eduard each die of being unable to accept appearances of themselves. Ottilie resists breaking up Eduard and Charlotte's marriage; taking on the daily care of the newly delivered, surprise child of that marriage, her carelessness leads to its accidental death by drowning. She stops talking; then stops eating and dies. Eduard, seeing himself without her as permanently bereaved, is found dead in his chair.
______________________
* Romantic Lives

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Birthday & The Man

Goethe (Stieler 1828).jpg

1.

- Correct me if I'm wrong, but we both really like the novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, despite not liking, or rather, not being interested in its author.
- Go on.
- Wilhelm believes in the romantic life of following desire and chance where they lead. To more responsible parties that involves treating unexamined desires as necessity, and letting chance lead you into radical improvidence, into failure to secure the minimum practical necessities of life.
- 'For if we do not know our environment, we shall mistake our dreams for a part of it, and so spoil our science by making it fantastic, and our dreams by making them obligatory.'  George Santayana.
- Interesting quote, but I don't want to go in that direction. Wilhelm's problem is not reality, or even fantasy.
- What is Wilhelm's problem?
- Whether there can be an art to life, whether life as a whole can be a work of art.
- In his other works Goethe suggests instead that life is a matter of will, of reiterated and left behind bouts of creativity.
- But in this novel things are more complex. The argument is made that a secure foundation, a family, or a patron, or a society of friends, is required to take care of necessities whereupon chance can be followed, and become the basis of creative response, whether in life or in art. Wilhelm's actress-mistress assumes such a necessity of secure foundation, understands the insecurity of Wilhelm's intended life in the theater, and at the end of the novel it is revealed that at least partly the romantic sequence of supposed chance events has been a secret society's show produced to educate Wilhelm.
- Educate him to the importance of security upon which rely episodes of creative response to life, with life not having meaning as a whole.
- Except that what is so wonderful about the novel is that it gives exactly the opposite impression, of the romantic life of chance having meaning. Wilhelm is, unbeknownst to him, living within a show put on by secret friends, but he, within that show, acquires for himself an adoptive family, a boy and a girl.
- Creativity is not just in responding to chance, but in choosing the conditions of necessity. The society of friends adopt him, he adopts the children.
- Yes. What do you think?
- I'm thinking.
- The question hits close to home.
- In my experience, in finding the chosen foundation in the midst of romance, and so solving the problem of arbitrariness of chance, practical necessity is neglected and the whole falls apart.
- Where does that leave us?
- In great difficulty. Wilhelm explains to busnessman Werther: 'How immensely, dear friend, do you err in believing that a work, the first presentation of which is to fill the whole soul, can be produced in broken hours scraped together from other extraneous employment. No: the poet must live wholly for himself, wholly in the objects that delight him. Heaven has furnished him internally with precious gifts; he carries in his bosom a treasure that is ever of itself increasing; he must also live with this treasure, undisturbed from without, in that still blessedness which the rich seek in vain to purchase with their accumulated stores.' A family or patron must be found to take care of practical necessity, on which basis you can seek your own chosen family, in relation to, love and care for which, your episodic creative use of chance has its meaning.
- Problem solved.
- If your problem is writing a novel in which these ideas are explored. If your life as an artist is a series of such willful acts of reiterated creativity.
- But that is not the idea in this novel.
- No. If your problem is putting these ideas into effect, not merely in art, but in your life, unless you were born to the necessary conditions you have to rely on chance to create them. You must become a romantic against your will.


2.

- Happy birthday.
- Thanks. Sometimes after passing through periods of your life when you hardly recognize yourself you wonder if it is your life you are leading and not a set of inconsistent lives going on under your name.
- Certain philosophers say that ego or sense of self is an illusion; we are in constant change; we are like a nation, citizens of which change constantly. What gives us an idea of self is no more than physical and mental continuity.
- And you believe that?
- No. You don't either.
- Then what do you believe makes a self, allows a life to have consistency, even in periods where your life hardly can be recognized?
- Consciousness.
- Consciousness comes and goes with sleep and accident, and has different degrees.
- Comes and goes, yes; no, different degrees. Degree reflects only how far consciousness has gone, or not.
- Explain.
- Computer scientists look for consciousness on the model of one part of the brain looking on and modifying another, but that's not it. Consciousness is a relation of rest to activity; a standing outside of time and space, looking down on the actions of the past.
- The "Knower of the Field", as the Bhagavad Gita has it.
- Yes. Unlike the self, which is nothing but a mix of experiences, perceptions, and desires, a special kind of consciousness, the consciousness of good, immediately reestablishes connection after a break.
- How exactly?
- You know Kant's way of founding morality?
- Remind me.
- Being moral is doing what we all, if we were rational, would agree to do.
- And why should we care to follow that rule?
- Because we want to more than anything else. Do you know why we want to? (This is not Kant anymore.) Because it places us, in relation to our fellow human beings, in the same relation we are to ourselves in consciousness.
- Again, explain.
- I'm not sure how much I can. You take over.
- You assume I agree with you.
- You do.
- When, knowers of the field, we're detached from desires impelling us to action, the world we see is beautiful, people's action good, statements true; such a world is like the universality of reason in moral judgment that is able to include everyone in its overview. Even in periods like the year I'm coming out of all can be brought together, even if it is related and included only by noting the love that conspicuously was lacking.
- Everything is brought together, seen under the sign of eternity.
- And that is where consciousness goes, when it lessens in degree? Into eternity?
- It comes from nowhere at the beginning of life and goes to nowhere at the end; why not travels also in the middle?
- Are there places of return in nowhere, and other places of no way back?
- 'Places in nowhere!'
- A strange combination of words, but maybe not stranger than the statement we can conclude with: that we are most ourselves when are in agreement with all.


3.
But use of reason, as a means, is compatible with any end, no matter how irrational.*
- I've been reading, thinking. Consciousness, in the perception of beauty, goodness, and truth, solves the problem of seeing ourselves as disparate collections of parts. But, as Hans Jonas* says, isn't consciousness itself what leads us into seeing separate things in relation to each other? Sight, Jonas says, gives to us an instantaneous assembly of different parts ranged from near to far and right to left. Those assemblies of parts are then what science uses experimentally putting them in different relations and giving them a push to see what happens, looking for a regular relation between the assemblies, and that regular relation allows predictions of perceptions. Science comes out of an understanding of what perception is that only the collecting together, seeing all at once, and then standing back from, of consciousness makes possible.
- Science beginning in consciousness of perception. What conclusion do you draw from this?
- First, it was already clearly seen at the beginnings of our civilization in the myth of knowledge bringing a fall, and in Parmenides' view that knowledge of things was an illusion but necessary to be acquired.
- Is there no other way to acquire knowledge?
- There certainly is. It is the way an artist learns to use materials by the use of them, building up habits which bring regular results.
- How is that different from what is done in science?
- It is the thing itself that is being learned, not how arrangements of different things can be made to change. If I want to see whether heavier things fall faster than light things, I put a heavy thing a yard above the ground and let it fall, then do the same with a lighter thing, and see if the elapsed time is the same or not. I haven't learned anything about any individual thing that fell, except that it is a part of a large collection - that of all things - that fall at the same rate.** There is beauty in scientific, artificial perception let's call it, in its truth. But this truth involves the falsity that isolated things exist separate from one another. In fact we learn about the world through intimate repeated contact with it,*** culminating in a sense of beauty which removes the 'thingness' of its parts. Things we learn in this way we resist being destroyed. No so the objects of perceptions that science puts in relation to each other. We do not form bodily habits in responses to classes of things like 'things that fall', they do not build up into a natural perception. The beauty of scientific truth is derivative, resides in its power of recalling to mind actual perceptions of beauty.
- Consciousness gives us the things of science and suggests what to do with them. Scientific perceptions are different from personal perceptions: they aren't beautiful so we don't inordinately care about them. Is that a problem?
- Absolutely! Because, as we talked about last time, personal knowledge and perception easily take on the form of scientific perception. And then we don't know any more who or what we are.
- Then we need only keep the two apart.
- Only! Do we even know if the relation master to slave, dominance to submission isn't the product of consciousness discovering the artifice of scientific perception, perhaps with the beginnings of agriculture? Once hierarchical relations**** are established, nothing is more useful or rather essential than maintaining the priority of artificial perception.*****


4.

Do we even know 'if the relation master to slave, dominance to submission isn't the product of consciousness discovering the artifice of scientific perception, perhaps with the beginnings of agriculture?'
- We don't know, but we have good reasons for thinking so. Pre-literate societies were in general not hierarchical: roles complemented roles, things were directed to those who needed them, people felt connected to each other. One suggestion is that the hunting male's aggression was turned against the female, the old's insecurity and fear against the young. But fear and aggression breaking out when the communal form of society made them unnecessary is what we need to explain, and can't be its cause. Another suggestion is that an inner will to dominate that has always has been present but repressed in human nature finally breaks out. But again: why this break out when dominance had been effectively controlled by the rules of communal society?
- Then perhaps we, like some animals, started practicing dominance rituals, impelled by that inner darkness.
- Same problem: why regress to dominance rituals, when ritual had been turned to sypathetic imitation of nature spirits, making us feel secure by alliance to regularities of nature and seeming by the strength of our security to hold nature to continuing that regularity.
- So what happened?
- Resident, settled agriculture. The practices of hunting and gathering are occasional: they come and go with time of day and season. Resident, settled agriculture is present to us all the time. Technique can be applied continuously.
- And that is like the cycle of modern science, where knowledge gained is immediately applied, observing the results of which new knowledge is gained.
- Yes.  Also, hunting and gathering take us to different places, but our action on the field is on the same field. We see the results of applying the last perception in what we see now before us.
- And that is Jonas' consciousness of perception that makes us aware of parts.
- Yes. The field is no longer something independent, with its own characteristic events, but a thing with separate parts enmeshed in the cycle of our perception and applied knowledge.


5.

- This talk of science, individuality, society, is putting me out, putting me off. I can't even talk.
- Sure you can.
- An individual's life ought to be naturally, reasonably, intelligently worked into society. Making the different parts involved and how they relate to each other the subject of conversation doesn't begin to tell me how to do that.
- What does?
- Stories of people trying.
- I'm listening.
- We've looked at Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. Goethe's last novel, according to him his best and requiring three readings for full comprehension, was Elective Affinities. The title refers to an account of the way two chemical elements that are compounded together, in the presence of another compound of two elements, each of the two joined elements separates, and each of the two parts of each compound joins instead to one of the two parts of the other compound.
- The compounds separate only to combine with the separated elements of the other compound.
- Yes. At the beginning of the story the chemical dance of changing partners comes up in conversation, with obvious application to present company: the rich aristocrat Eduard, his wife Charlotte, the Eduard's friend the Captain who's come to stay, and his wife's absent, but under consideration for invitation, protege Ottilie. Charlotte immediately observes such application would be an unrealistic simplification.
- Which is Goethe's position?
- We'll get there. An aristocrat, it is said in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, must make a show of good breeding, but need not actually have it and consequently usually doesn't. Eduard and his wife in Elective Affinities had both made previous marriages of convenience, though they were in love with each other even then, and only the death of both their spouses allowed them ten years later to marry.
- Marriages of convenience evidence of living more for show than natural impulse.
- Yes. Now it comes to pass that Eduard falls in love with the invited Ottilie, his wife to a lesser extent with the Captain. All four characters have the syllable 'ott' in their names: the Captain's name is Otto, that is also one of Eduard's names, his wife's name is Charlotte, and then there's Ottilie. We said about science that it relates classes of parts of things to classes of parts of things. The parts of things in the class are treated as if they were identical, varying from each other only in place or movement. In tableau vivants organized at the castle living people enact famous pictures, according to the narrator improving upon them but leaving an uneasy feeling in the audience: the living have become 'elements' in the picture, parts of themselves that have their being among parts of other people and the background of the scene presented.
- What's Goethe's point? Eduard and his wife were proper aristocrats, making a show of good breeding. Then, when opportunity arises and love interests more to their taste arrive, they - again? - in acting on their passion are merely putting on a show, they've lowered themselves to the status of elements of a picture? They're all instances of "otts", are drops of chemicals, dabs of paint?
- So it would seem. The prime activity of Eduard, his family, his friends, and employees is remaking the extensive grounds of the castle into parkland, drawing out its beauty, making it a show of itself. The characters live in a strict hierachy: Eduard is served by his wife, she by her protege Ottilie, Ottilie by her own protege and numerous servants, and below them all: the poor. Special police are employeed to keep beggers away from the family and friends' elaborate celebrations of birthdays, that is, their shows to the glory of themselves and their 'quality'.
- How does the story end?
- To be guilty of a simplification like the analogy of elective affinities itself: Ottilie and Eduard each die of being unable to accept appearances of themselves. Ottilie resists breaking up Eduard and Charlotte's marriage; taking on the daily care of the newly delivered, surprise child of that marriage, her carelessness leads to its accidental death by drowning. She stops talking; then stops eating and dies. Eduard, seeing himself without her as permanently bereaved, is found dead in his chair.


6.

- What we said about Goethe's Elective Affinities, that it was the opposite of the romantic call to accept passion as opposed to reason I always thought it was, I have to admit is hard for me to accept. I looked back at Goethe's views on nature, and found, in fact, they were in accord with our dismissal of thinking of ourselves as things moved by things, parts moved by parts. For him science was or ought to be like perception: seeing things as a whole, seeing how things were composed. But -
- Yes?
- In Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship there are major religious and mystical elements: a whole separate novel is inserted of a woman who wishes to live entirely in religious feeling; and in the main story there is another woman who has an intimate relation with astronomical movements, with the stars and the planets, with the Cosmos. What do you make of this?
- I'm afraid you'll think I'm joking.
- 'It seems my fate to be in the wrong with you about the smallest things. I must be very good-natured to overlook such an unfailing superiority as yours.' ******
- Fine. Jonas, you remember, the author of The Phenomenon Of Life, describes life as an interrelation with the world, involved in the world by feeling its intrusions, and willing in turn to intrude on it, in a constant movement that retains the form of life, with the goal of self preservation through constant remaking of itself. 'Will' and 'feeling' are not, he says, facts about the world: they are not parts of things put in movement against other parts. They involve a sense of direction. That is, they involve a selection between possible arrangements of the world. Freedom of how to speak of the world, how to see the world, arises out of the fixed 'vocabulary' of things come to be known.
- We respond to the world, we feel it, and willing it to take on a preferred arrangement we act on it.
- Yes. The character who is detached from the world in religious feeling can be seen to be, by an act of will, standing back from the world, being 'the knower of the field'. And the character who's in intimate relation to the cosmos, and can perhaps act on it to make it better, that reflects the capacity life has to will the world into shape. Well?
- Here's the thing. Brain scientists, neurophysicists, whatever they are calling themselves now, they imagine they don't feel and don't will. They call mental states epiphenomena. That is, things in a world of parts moving parts but which themselves don't have parts therefore can't be anything. How can people be so stupid? They say they know how to talk about the world and if some part of the world doesn't let them talk that way they say it must not be in the world. Where is it then?
- A good question. Do you know, I think the reason, as you put it, they can be so stupid is that they know the experience of making an error in their conclusions, dumping the bad idea, and backtracking.
- But dumping a bad idea, a logical progression or scheme of classification, is not the same as dumping knowledge of your own experience.
- It is, if you never consider these kinds of questions.
- And they don't.
- They never consider these kind of questions because they can't imagine how the freedom that comes of not having parts acting on each other is related to the lack of freedom in having parts acting on each other.
- Can you?
- Has Goethe given you any ideas?
- Yes and no. Sometimes he seems to believe in meaningful coincidences, fate, a personal destiny, the world taking on a form that suits our will; other times he seems to be making fun of the idea, for example showing that when Wilhelm thought he was pursuing his own way in life actually a secret society had been guiding his fate.
- Try putting that together with Goethe's views on nature.
- The science he said he wanted to do was of making representations, rather than explanations.
- Yes. We know that when science looks for a relation of explanations to each other it looks for whether the parts in one move the parts in the other. What is the relation of representations to each other?
- I don't know.
- What about when we talk?
- Yes, you already said that with a fixed vocabulary we have infinite freedom in ways of combining words into sentences. Representations are kinds of symbols. But how does that solve our problem?
- Our feeling of the world is a perception of the world, of how what we see is composed as a whole, and this knowledge, coming about through our body's response to the world, is unfree, part acting on part. But the will's use of that perception, how it puts it together with other perceptions, is unlimited, like the unlimited way of combining words into sentences. That perception, knowledge, feeling all arise together gives will something to grab hold of, without being tied to, or determined by.
- I can't say I'm convinced.
- Then let's return to Wilhelm Mesiter's Apprenticeship and the strange confusion of fate that is being followed and directed at the same time. The coincidences that occur in the story and Wilhelm thinks are fate but may really have been staged by the benevolent secret society: the staging can be like feeling, the act of the world on us, that is also perception and knowledge, and his impression of fate is his will to make his life his own.
- And why the coincidences?
- They are like words in a sentence that seem to go together, to be representing the world, but where the sentence goes, how it concludes, is up to him. I'll tell you something that happened last night in the courtyard up the street. A very well dressed woman in her late 60s sat down on the bench next to me, first time anyone had done that in the month I'd been going there. I strike up a conversation with her: she takes out a notebook and starts writing down words - in Catalan, French, English - suggested to her by the objects nearby, the color of my thermal flask, the name of the man on the cover of magazine in her lap, the words or subjects from our conversation struggling through bits of many languages. Separating parts of words from each other, these parts she then interpreted and connected to the other words, or their parts. And these words and suggestions were related to her recent experiences, places she had been and the words associated with them or seen there. She makes sure, she says, connections lead her in a positive direction. This was a first coincidence: I'd hours before finished reading Pullman's new fantasy La Belle Sauvage, in which a clockwork (but mysterious exactly how) device, the alethiometer, in response to questions, reads out symbols that yield layer upon layer of interpretations. The elegant woman tells me she wants to write to Amazon, the internet retailer, about something she's discovered. She takes out a metal box of pastilles, on the lid the brand 'Bezos', also the name of Amazon's founder. I tell her that Amazon's grocery delivery service I briefly worked for in L.A. has its Barcelona warehouse occupying the next block's interior courtyard, the block where I'm staying. Another coincidence. And then she, on the subject of these courtyards inside residential blocks, tells me the drug company Beyer which she once worked for, and I too once worked for in Budapest, used to be here in this courtyard before the city cleared it out to be reopened to the public. There I sit every day using the wifi from the Toyota showroom along one side.
- Good thing you don't write novels.
- You'll have to excuse me if my coincidences don't stand up against Goethe's. Like the times we live in they are mostly commercial: objects exchanged as if people involved don't matter, rather than the reverse, exchange of objects that don't matter except in their bringing people together.******* But that only makes it clearer, doesn't it?
- What clearer?
- That the coincidences are objects, parts of things tied to parts of things, meaningless in themselves, freely made use of to make our relation to people better.


7.

- What are coincidences then?
- Reversals. Improbable events reversing expectation of the probable.
- If they are merely improbabilities, why do we feel like they mean something?
- Because we feel like we deserve to expect them.
- Expecting improbability? Improbabilities become probable?
- Yes! I mentioned Amazon last time. I'm want to tell you about my experience with that company. But first let me say I spent all my life avoiding the world Amazon typifies, all my life up until a few years ago. I got out. I ran away. I judged that a good life was improbable in the America of money and only money. And this is what I want to tell you: I was right. All those years of being out, now that I'm in, partly in, I look back on as a time of beauty.
- A time of beauty.
- You object to the phrase?
- How does coincidence fit in?
- Coincidence tells you that your decision based on probability, which after all is all we ever have to go on, was correct.
- 'They' tell you: who is that 'they'? How are coincidences a 'they'?
- We have to decide the must important things in our lives based on probabilities, and sometimes when we do, and are right, improbabilities start assembling themselves; and what I think is they are telling us things are different now, that turning our backs on, calculating probabilities in the world we knew, we were right in how we decided.
- 'They' are telling us?
- As beauty speaks to us: improbability, coincidence is the world getting our attention, notifying us in advance the probability of the return of love. You accept that the world can speak to us with its beauty?
- Yes, I think I do. Reversals of probabilities, when they involve our own lives, are somehow beautiful. Tell me about Amazon.
- A company about money and only money. A company that exists to provide quantities of things cheaper and monopolize markets. Quantity and cheapness has made them the world's largest retailer and granted them monopoly status. Like the products sold, employees are cheap and handled in multitudes. Employee costs in relation to profits are minimal. Computer programs record every movement of every employee, measuring efficiency second by second. But a surprise is in store for you when newly hired you show up to work. No manager is there. You are expected to train yourself by following around the other employees. Amazon has managers, but their salaries are so much greater than yours that it is not efficient for them to show up and manage you. In fact, the managers are managed in the same way themselves, their efficiency controlled by other managers whose own efficiency is monitored by other managers.
- Everyone is watching and no one is managing. How is that efficient?
- Without the monopoly profits it wouldn't be. But as this is a company about money and only money, management is not competent to do anything else. In its surveillance of employees by employees themselves surveilled the company never sees a human being, no manager ever decides like a human being. It's amazing. It's the end of the world. The employees hate the company, hate what they are doing, and have no interest in the other employees they immediately see hate the company and what they are doing. Why bother discussing it with each other?
- You misunderstood me earlier. I wasn't objecting to your 'time of beauty.' I was thinking rather that this kind of, as you put it, listening to the world is something entirely different from probability: it is all or nothing. Similarly, I think you're saying of our world of money it too is an absolute in the way it talks to us. Am I right?
- Yes. Beauty or its opposite: if they address themselves to us even for a moment they spread out in memory and imagination occupying everything there is.
- But still. If you had made an effort and talked to the employees maybe they'd have turned out to have lives just like yours.
- Unlikely. Probabilities are important. Time is limited. It was time to go.

Further Reading:
Killer Metaphysics
______________________
* The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, Hans Jonas, 1966.
** "Organism is seen as primarily determined by the conditions of its existence, and life is understood in terms of the organism-environment situation rather than in terms of the exercise of an autonomous nature." Ibid, Second Essay, 'Philosophic Aspects of Darwinism'.
*** "Food cultivation, practiced in a truly ecological sense, presupposes that the agriculturist is familiar with all the features and subtleties of the terrain on which the corps are grown. He must have a thorough knowledge of the physiography of the land, its variegated soils’ — crop land, forest land, pasture land — mineral and organic content, and its microclimate, and he must be engaged in a continuing study of the effects produced by new flora and fauna. He must develop his sensitivity to the land’s possibilities and needs while becoming an organic part of the agricultural situation." (Ecology and Revolutionary Thought, Murray Bookchin, 1964.)
**** Seeing oneself as a thing in a world of things generates fear. As the thing you are is defined in relation to the things other people are, since you as an individual are never interacted with by others or known to yourself, when that relation to others changes, you become invisible to yourself. You have no idea what to expect; fear arises and leads to violent, passionate action on other people seen as things to reestablish relation and thus visibility. Hierarchy is established as other people seen as things are forced into stable relation to you, doing what you decide best reflects back your stability as a thing, your power to maintain relation. See: Noam Chomsky & Mental Things.
***** See: Leaders Who Betray
****** Denis Diderot, 'Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage' (1772)
******* See: Marcel Mauss

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Consciousness, Science, Perception

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But use of reason, as a means, is compatible with any end, no matter how irrational.*

(Continued from Personal Lives)

- I've been reading, thinking. Consciousness, in the perception of beauty, goodness, and truth, solves the problem of seeing ourselves as disparate collections of parts. But, as Hans Jonas* says, isn't consciousness itself what leads us into seeing separate things in relation to each other? Sight, Jonas says, gives to us an instantaneous assembly of different parts ranged from near to far and right to left. Those assemblies of parts are then what science uses experimentally putting them in different relations and giving them a push to see what happens, looking for a regular relation between the assemblies, and that regular relation allows predictions of perceptions. Science comes out of an understanding of what perception is that only the collecting together, seeing all at once, and then standing back from, of consciousness makes possible.
- Science beginning in consciousness of perception. What conclusion do you draw from this?
- First, it was already clearly seen at the beginnings of our civilization in the myth of knowledge bringing a fall, and in Parmenides' view that knowledge of things was an illusion but necessary to be acquired.
- Is there no other way to acquire knowledge?
- There certainly is. It is the way an artist learns to use materials by the use of them, building up habits which bring regular results.
- How is that different from what is done in science?
- It is the thing itself that is being learned, not how arrangements of different things can be made to change. If I want to see whether heavier things fall faster than light things, I put a heavy thing a yard above the ground and let it fall, then do the same with a lighter thing, and see if the elapsed time is the same or not. I haven't learned anything about any individual thing that fell, except that it is a part of a large collection - that of all things - that fall at the same rate.** There is beauty in scientific, artificial perception let's call it, in its truth. But this truth involves the falsity that isolated things exist separate from one another. In fact we learn about the world through intimate repeated contact with it,*** culminating in a sense of beauty which removes the 'thingness' of its parts. Things we learn in this way we resist being destroyed. No so the objects of perceptions that science puts in relation to each other. We do not form bodily habits in responses to classes of things like 'things that fall', they do not build up into a natural perception. The beauty of scientific truth is derivative, resides in its power of recalling to mind actual perceptions of beauty.****
- Consciousness gives us the things of science and suggests what to do with them. Scientific perceptions are different from personal perceptions: they aren't beautiful **** so we don't inordinately care about them. Is that a problem?
- Absolutely! Because, as we talked about last time, personal knowledge and perception easily take on the form of scientific perception. And then we don't know any more who or what we are.
- Then we need only keep the two apart.
- Only! Do we even know if the relation master to slave, dominance to submission isn't the product of consciousness discovering the artifice of scientific perception, perhaps with the beginnings of agriculture? Once hierarchical relations***** are established, nothing is more useful or rather essential than maintaining the priority of artificial perception.******


2.

- Do we even know 'if the relation master to slave, dominance to submission isn't the product of consciousness discovering the artifice of scientific perception, perhaps with the beginnings of agriculture?'
- We don't know, but we have good reasons for thinking so. Pre-literate societies were in general not hierarchical: roles complemented roles, things were directed to those who needed them, people felt connected to each other. Some suggest that the hunting male's aggression was turned against the female, the old's insecurity and fear against the young. But fear and aggression breaking out when the communal form of society made them unnecessary is what we need to explain, and can't be its cause. Another suggestion is that an inner dominance always has been present in human nature, a fear of domination which finally breaks out. But again: why this break out when dominance had been effectively controlled by the rules of communal society?
- Then perhaps we, like some animals, started practicing dominance rituals, acting on the suggestion of our inner darkness.
- Same problem: why regress to dominance rituals, when ritual had been turned to sypathetic imitation of nature spirits, making us feel secure by alliance to regularities of nature and seeming by the strength of our security to hold nature to continuing that regularity.
- So what happened?
- Resident agriculture. Improving skills in the hunt, in gathering, is occasional: these activities are tied to cycles of day night, the seasons. In resident agriculture, evidence of the success or failure of technique is continuously before us. We can apply our technique continuously.
- And that is like the cycle of modern science, where knowledge gained is immediately applied, observing the results of which new knowledge is gained.
- Yes.  Also, hunting and gathering take us to different places, but our action on the field is on the same field. We see the results of the last perception in what we see now before us.
- And that is Jonas' consciousness of perception that makes us aware of parts.
- Yes. The field is no longer something independent, with its own characteristic events, but a thing with separate parts enmeshed in the cycle of our perception and applied knowledge.

Further Reading:
Killer Metaphysics
______________________
* The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, Hans Jonas, 1966.
** "Organism is seen as primarily determined by the conditions of its existence, and life is understood in terms of the organism-environment situation rather than in terms of the exercise of an autonomous nature." Ibid, Second Essay, 'Philosophic Aspects of Darwinism'.
*** "Food cultivation, practiced in a truly ecological sense, presupposes that the agriculturist is familiar with all the features and subtleties of the terrain on which the corps are grown. He must have a thorough knowledge of the physiography of the land, its variegated soils’ — crop land, forest land, pasture land — mineral and organic content, and its microclimate, and he must be engaged in a continuing study of the effects produced by new flora and fauna. He must develop his sensitivity to the land’s possibilities and needs while becoming an organic part of the agricultural situation."
(Ecology and Revolutionary Thought, Murray Bookchin, 1964.)
**** The continuous cycle of perception and application of modern science is ugly: beauty is in rest, learning new habits of perception after repeated acts on the world that acts on us; our science never rests, so never presents an immediate world to develop habits of response to.
***** Seeing oneself as a thing in a world of things generates fear. As the thing you are is defined in relation to the things other people are, since you as an individual are never interacted with by others or known to yourself, when that relation to others changes, you become invisible to yourself. You have no idea what to expect; fear arises and leads to violent, passionate action on other people seen as things to reestablish relation and thus visibility. Hierarchy is established as other people seen as things are forced into stable relation to you, doing what you decide best reflects back your stability as a thing, your power to maintain relation. See: Noam Chomsky & Mental Things.
****** See: Leaders Who Betray

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Personal Lives


- Happy birthday.
- Thanks. Sometimes after passing through periods of your life when you hardly recognize yourself you wonder if it is your life you are leading and not a set of inconsistent lives going on under your name.
- Certain philosophers say that ego or sense of self is an illusion; we are in constant change; we are like a nation, citizens of which change constantly. What gives us an idea of self is no more than physical and mental continuity.
- And you believe that?
- No. You don't either.
- Then what do you believe makes a self, allows a life to have consistency, even in periods where your life hardly can be recognized?
- Consciousness.
- Consciousness comes and goes with sleep and accident, and has different degrees.
- Comes and goes, yes; no, different degrees. Degree reflects only how far consciousness has gone, or not.
- Explain.
- Computer scientists look for consciousness on the model of one part of the brain looking on and modifying another, but that's not it. Consciousness is a relation of rest to activity; a standing outside of time and space, looking down on the actions of the past.
- The "Knower of the Field", as the Bhagavad Gita has it.
- Yes. Unlike the self, which is nothing but a mix of experiences, perceptions, and desires, a special kind of consciousness, the consciousness of good, immediately reestablishes connection after a break.
- How exactly?
- You know Kant's way of founding morality?
- Remind me.
- Being moral is doing what we all, if we were rational, would agree to do.
- And why should we care to follow that rule?
- Because we want to more than anything else. Do you know why we want to? (This is not Kant anymore.) Because it places us, in relation to our fellow human beings, in the same relation we are to ourselves in consciousness.
- Again, explain.
- I'm not sure how much I can. You take over.
- You assume I agree with you.
- You do.
- When, knowers of the field, we're detached from desires impelling us to action, the world we see is beautiful, people's action good, statements true; such a world is like the universality of reason in moral judgment that is able to include everyone in its overview. Even in periods like the year I'm coming out of all can be brought together, even if it is related and included only by noting the love that conspicuously was lacking.
- Everything is brought together, seen under the sign of eternity.
- And that is where consciousness goes, when it lessens in degree? Into eternity?
- It comes from nowhere at the beginning of life and goes to nowhere at the end; why not travels also in the middle?
- Are there places of return in nowhere, and other places of no way back?
- 'Places in nowhere!'
- A strange combination of words, but maybe not stranger than the statement we can conclude with: that we are most ourselves when are in agreement with all.

Further Reading:
Consciousness, Science, Perception

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Romantic Lives

Goethe (Stieler 1828).jpg

- Correct me if I'm wrong, but we both really like the novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship,* despite not liking, or rather, not being interested in its author.
- Go on.
- Wilhelm believes in the romantic life of following desire and chance where they lead. To more responsible parties that involves treating unexamined desires as necessity, and letting chance lead you into radical improvidence, into failure to secure the minimum practical necessities of life.
- 'For if we do not know our environment, we shall mistake our dreams for a part of it, and so spoil our science by making it fantastic, and our dreams by making them obligatory.' **
- Interesting quote, but I don't want to go in that direction. Wilhelm's problem is not reality, or even fantasy.
- What is Wilhelm's problem?
- Whether there can be an art to life, whether life as a whole can be a work of art.
- In his other works Goethe suggests instead that life is a matter of will, of reiterated and left behind bouts of creativity.
- But in this novel things are more complex. The argument is made that a secure foundation, a family, or a patron, or a society of friends, is required to take care of necessities whereupon chance can be followed, and become the basis of creative response, whether in life or in art. Wilhelm's actress-mistress assumes such a necessity of secure foundation, understands the insecurity of Wilhelm's intended life in the theater, and at the end of the novel it is revealed that at least partly the romantic sequence of supposed chance events has been a secret society's show produced to educate Wilhelm.
- Educate him to the importance of security upon which rely episodes of creative response to life, with life not having meaning as a whole.
- Except that what is so wonderful about the novel is that it gives exactly the opposite impression, of the romantic life of chance having meaning. Wilhelm is, unbeknownst to him, living within a show put on by secret friends, but he, within that show, acquires for himself an adoptive family, a boy and a girl.
- Creativity is not just in responding to chance, but in choosing the conditions of necessity. The society of friends adopt him, he adopts the children.
- Yes. What do you think?
- I'm thinking.
- The question hits close to home.
- In my experience, in finding the chosen foundation in the midst of romance, and so solving the problem of arbitrariness of chance, practical necessity is neglected and the whole falls apart.
- Where does that leave us?
- In great difficulty. Wilhelm explains to busnessman Werther: 'How immensely, dear friend, do you err in believing that a work, the first presentation of which is to fill the whole soul, can be produced in broken hours scraped together from other extraneous employment. No: the poet must live wholly for himself, wholly in the objects that delight him. Heaven has furnished him internally with precious gifts; he carries in his bosom a treasure that is ever of itself increasing; he must also live with this treasure, undisturbed from without, in that still blessedness which the rich seek in vain to purchase with their accumulated stores.' A family or patron must be found to take care of practical necessity, on which basis you can seek your own chosen family, in relation to, love and care for which, your episodic creative use of chance has its meaning.
- Problem solved.
- If your problem is writing a novel in which these ideas are explored. If your life as an artist is a series of such willful acts of reiterated creativity.
- But that is not the idea in this novel.
- No. If your problem is putting these ideas into effect, not merely in art, but in your life, unless you were born to the necessary conditions you have to rely on chance to create them. You must become a romantic against your will.
_______________
* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 'Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship'
** George Santayana, 'Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe'

Monday, December 18, 2017

Romantic Stories

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- You seem to want to say something. Let's hear it.
- I was thinking over your little dance about politics in poverty and poverty in politics,* and your making symbols out of the characters you bring in. I think I've discovered something.
- What?
- The epitome of all symbols of money and politics and their dance with each other is our new president. The stunning surprise of his election is that the American people, hitherto holding to the myth of themselves as being good people, especially good people, could elect someone who was not only obviously bad but extremely bad.
- And now you know the why and how of it?
- You be the judge. Isn't he unique in all history, in all time and space for all I know, in being famous because he is rich, and rich because he is famous?
- Is that true?
- I wouldn't bet on the all history part, but yes, I think it's true. Rich because famous: most of his money comes from his much watched performances on TV shows and renting out his name to buildings he doesn't own. Famous because rich: the part he plays on his TV show and the message of his name is being famously rich. What do you think?
- You've got something there.
- Then I'd like you to explain a little more about symbols, the culprit in this perverse dance of politics and money.
- This particular dance is not hard to explain. Both fame and money are quantifiable symbols of power of social role: the more dollars, the more people who know about you, the more your role can be assumed, on general principles, to be powerful, the greater the guarantee of  your safety against the isolation and destitution that is always a danger to people who's security depends on the complementary role play of others.
- Fame, because it is a form of security, is worth money, and a quantity of money, another form of security, easily can attract to itself fame.
- Yes. Can I tell you a story about money, about symbols? Something that happened on the afternoon of the day I spoke of last time.
- Sure.
- I was riding my bike through the back streets of Beverly Hills, on my way to Westwood. I turned down the street just behind the Peninsula Hotel...
- Where the guy worked who stole your last bike.**
- And where the movie producer in our latest scandal used to summon actresses for "meetings" in which he presented himself to them naked.
- And when his requested sexual favors were resisted would whine, 'You don't like me because I'm fat!'
- Another symbol of our times.
- Yes. A movie producer, rich, famous, with bad character, but not rendered invulnerable by that unique dance of fame and money of our president. So, I was turning the corner when I spy on the pavement, exactly in the middle of the intersection, a five dollar bill neatly folded in half. I stop, looking out for traffic, and pocket the bill. I glance around for where it could have come from, and now see other bills blowing in the breeze across the intersection. I pick these up too.
- How much money are we talking about?
- A ten, and a few ones. I'm ready to mount my bike and go when a large SUV pulls up in front of me. A guy leans out the passenger window, a Mexican-American in his twenties, and says, 'I threw the money out the window.' I ask:
- Why'd you do that?
- I'm an idiot I guess.
- You want me to give you the money?
He nods. I realize he might have said, which is more probable, 'The money flew out the window'. The bills might be his tips working as a parking valet at the hotel. Or maybe this is the trick that had been tried on me in Budapest. A man walking down the street in front of you leans down and picks up a wallet. You stop to watch as he opens it, disclosing a set of identification cards and a large amount of money. He notes your attention, says to you he doesn't want the trouble of returning the wallet to its owner. Would you like to have it? - only he'd like a finders fee before turning it over. If you pay, or even if you don't, after the man leaves another appears, flashes what appears to be a genuine police badge and accuses you of conspiring to steal the money in the wallet, and then suggests a bribe for his, just this one time, letting the whole thing go.
- You gave the guy in the car the money. The symbolism isn't clear here.
- We have promising elements - loose money, a famous hotel - but the story doesn't appear to mean anything. In Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship a distinction is drawn between lives given up to fate, and those given up to chance. Those who bet on fate know what things in the world they want and actively pursue them. Those betting on chance know it is not arrangements in the world they have their heart set on; they let the world lead them where it will. Here's a passage from the novel:
Spring had come in all its brilliancy; storm that had been lowering all day went fiercely down upon the hills; the rain drew back into the country; the sun came forth in all its splendor, and upon the dark vapor rose the lordly rainbow. Wilhelm was riding towards it: the sight made him sad. "Ah!" said he within himself, "must it be that the fairest hues of life appear to us only on a ground of black? And must drops fall, if we are to be enraptured? A bright day is like a dull day, if we look at it unmoved; and what can move us but some silent hope that the inborn inclination of our soul shall not always be without an object? The recital of a noble action moves us; the sight of every thing harmonious moves us: we feel then as if we were not altogether in a foreign land; we fancy we are nearer the home towards which our best and inmost wishes impatiently strive.
Symbols have their place in tragic stories: stories of people whose role play blinds them to danger. They make mistakes and suffer from them. Their predictably repetitive action playing a role creates their fate. The romantic character, like Goethe's Wilhelm, however, doesn't follow the tragic form of action but the epic: a series of episodes of danger and escape, each themselves of no meaning: they lead back home, the ultimate place of value.

Further Reading:
Romantic Lives
_______________________
* Departure
** A Bike In Trumpland

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Departure

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- So you got out.
- Finally. For a while.
- Tell me about it.
- What's there to tell?
- How you got out.
- A friend in Europe arranged the place, money in the bank from the Hungarian Memory Book paid. Or is that not what you asked for?
- It's not.
- If I wasn't too particular about where I was going, I knew what I was leaving: politics and poverty. Politics turned into a tool of deepening poverty and poverty imbued with politics. They followed me to the very shuttle bus to the airport from the long term parking where the city buses stop. Last minute errands had been successfully accomplished: spare suit jacket from the cleaners and pair of new jeans from the consignment shop picked up from where they'd been for months; a light, second-hand computer bought for travelling, my ten year old eight pound IBM laptop and my bike left with the Guru,* the half crazy religious Jew in Beverly Hills I stayed with shortly after my 2014 return from Europe.
- And the politics and poverty?
- Before I could climb onto the shuttle bus an old woman with two huge new suitcases recruits me to help her drag them up the doorway steps. I do what she asks, and as the bus jerks into motion she proceeds to explain herself: the suitcases are filled with gifts for the destitute, she was staying at the Marriot (hundreds of dollars a night: note the woman's ragged clothes, unhealthy pallor, disheveled hair). She'll change shuttles at the airport for one that will drop her there. She's retired, was a publisher of guide books. In fact, she invented Facebook, tried to fight them for her rights and the banks too, Wells Fargo and Chase, who stole other ideas from her. But had to give up. She questions me when I don't respond: what do I do? where am I going? I confess I've a hard time explaining myself. Barcelona is where I'm going. Why? Also difficult to say. Interesting things are happening there. The state of Catalonia is in a fight with the national government for independence. In the Catalans desire for separation nationalism is mixed up with liberalism. Here the girl of college age sitting next to me breaks in:
- I hate that people think that Catalonia is liberal. It's not! The government is authoritarian.
- Are you from Catalonia?
- Yes.
- Thanks for the information. I don't know anything about the Catalan government. I'd assumed that the people of the 1935 anarchist revolution and the election of the present mayor were liberal. The mayor is very liberal, right? A campaigner to stop evictions?
- She is. I'm obsessed with her.
- I assumed that, whether or not the present government is conservative, an independent Catalonia would be a place where liberalism would more likely flourish? Is that not right?
The old woman cuts off the girl's answer, wanting geographical and statistical data. Did you catch the symbolism? On the one side, the assumption that politics was governments, rather than the people governments presently are engaged in impoverishing. On the other side, poverty that has accepted that the marketplace takes away personal responsibility for others and consequently the only public life can be that of social role and social status.
- And when you're so poor you have no real social status it has to be imagined. The poor of L.A., you think, ought to have their character free from politics, as at least historically the people of Catalonia have.

Further Reading:
Romantic Stories
_________________________
* At The Spiritual Film Festival

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Utopias of Love



- Why did you send me the story? The Dream of a Ridiculous Man?* I read it, though I'd read it long ago, in school I think.
- And?
- It's wonderful, at first reading and now. Under your influence I found myself sketching out the philosophic argument Dostoevsky makes. The title character, though poor, has home and job. He calls himself a ridiculous man because he knows how unlikely he is to be loved as he feels he loves, even in his isolation, strangers and places that have become familiar to him on his walks. In the seasonal emptying of Saint Petersburg, when the familiar strangers have gone with most of the rest of the population, his ridiculousness is brought home to him. The routines of politeness and duties of work rule out the individual attention love requires. He resolves to kill himself, and when the day comes when he feels himself ready a young girl grabs hold of him in the street, crying out, 'Mama! Mama!' - Her mother needs help! He shakes her off, not seeing why if all life is meaningless this demand for help should be any exception to the meaninglessness. That night he has a dream of a world where everyone loves and is loved. As some argue that the fact of our having the idea of god proves his reality, so this dream is so detailed that when he wakes it seems to carry with it its own proof of the possibility of its utopian society. The continuation of the dream convinces him even more of the real possibility of such a society. For what happens is his arrival with his own faults corrupts the perfect society. The once innocent people tell him they are happy with their corruption. Whereas before they had been happy in their simple lives, they began to speculate on the best life. Holders of different views begin to murder each other as obstacles to progress. This was acceptable, for to them, knowledge of life was a superior substitute for the experience of life. The ridiculous man disagrees. The experience of life is more important than knowledge of it. The perfect society has no need to await perfect knowledge of life to arrive, it's possible to begin love of all for all at any moment, no need to wait for history to resolve all conflicts; love is the past restored.
- All you need is love. Your philosophic commentary?
- You need more than love. Knowledge of life is not what is required, but rather knowledge of death, of what kills our love. That is what needs to be the possession of all in order for all to love all.
- The ridiculous man in his new specialization, a talker of utopia, remains ridiculous.
- He would be if he remained only a talker, relying on hope. Instead he begins to correct his mistakes: he seeks out the child that asked help and helps her. He knows with all his talk of love he is still thought to be ridiculous, but he no longer considers himself so. It's a great story.
- Yes.
- So why have me read it?
- Los Angeles to me is like St. Petersberg to the ridiculous man. Like him I  have no meaningful contact with anyone, and like him this city I live in is a place I have strong feelings for. Mostly a couple neighborhoods, three or four cafes, the university research library. My relations to people are strictly business, trivial business at that. And like in Dostoevsky's story my last few days had found me feeling down, valuing at nothing everything in my life; and like in the story at this low point in my life a girl appears needing my help, and I refuse.
- And you now want to tell me your story.
- Yes. You've heard a lot from me about the cafe I go to in West Hollywood. Sitting on the terrace, about an hour after closing time, they pass in succession, one by one, the drug addicts, the street sleepers, these who hear voices, those who talk to themselves. Across the street at the bus stop is as usual the old fellow bedded down for the night, shouting in his sleep, waking up suddenly, swearing, then quickly falling back asleep. The past week, every morning at two, closing time for the bars up the street, this little African man comes and sits down next to me. With painfully fake cheerfulness he asks me, 'How's it going today?' to which, not wanting to encourage him, I never respond. From the beginning he's struck me as false. Usually he goes away. Last night he stayed, reading a book in Arabic, guiding his eyes with a forefinger, and laughing softly, 'Hee Hee Hee', 'Hee Hee Hee'. A ride service car stops across the street, dropping off a young, nicely dressed girl about twenty years old. She stands uncertainly at the curb on her high heel platform shoes, apparently attracted by the lights of the cafe, crosses the street to stand unsteadily again at the curb. The little African man looks up and notices her. He shouts out his, 'How you're doing tonight?' When she doesn't answer he goes up to her, asks her how she is, can he help her, where is she going? To all of which she doesn't say a word. Do you want to sit down? he asks. No answer. He takes her arm and guides her to the bench at the cafe window. I listen as he delivers a speech to her: Everybody has problems some time. He's going to help her, that's normal. Does she have a key? Where does she live? Does she have a key? Going by the bags he carries, and the bits of twigs and leaves on his jacket, the little African beds down in one of the nearby doorways. If a pretty girl has a place somewhere he could join her that be a big improvement.
- Are you still pursuing the comparison? If you are a modern day ridiculous man the little African has become a sort of narrator of the dream of utopia.
- Yes. I'd just reread the story myself, and the perversity of the situation was borne down on me. I watched and listened to the little African. I'm immobilized, fascinated. The girl is on drugs. She doesn't know where she is or know that is something good for her to know, alone in West Hollywood at two in the morning. Several times, at a break in the little African's cajoling, she repeats, 'How are you?' To which question the African giggles, 'Hee Hee Hee'.  Finally he takes her arm again saying he'll walk her home and they start together across the street. I know I ought to stop this. But as I said, I'm immobilized. Like the ridiculous man in the story, the world has become meaningless to me. Why should I act as if there was something meaningful, necessary to be done, like helping a girl? How would that be consistent and rational? I look on in great tension. I've had experience in the past here with people showing up on drugs asking me to tell them where they are: two experiences precisely, both young men, and both, upon seeing a ride service car approach suddenly ran off, got in and drove away, having remembered a destination to tell the driver. This corner, a popular pick up and drop off spot for rides services, I'm thinking has a mystic attraction for those on drugs who can't remember where they are. If I'm right, the girl will return. I watch as their figures get smaller and smaller, and then: Yes! She has shrugged off the grip of the little African and is coming back. The little African trails behind, bags on his shoulders. At the cafe he says he'll return in a minute and takes off. I sit down by the girl, ask if she'll let me take her to Cedar Sinai Hospital, five minutes away. Or, I ask her, maybe she'd like to stay here until the cafe opens, if she has nowhere else to go. She makes no response. Ridiculous man that I am, I'm aware that when not on drugs she would ignore me just the same as she is doing now. I watch her closely, my whole body tensed in attention. I want to help her but I won't let myself. The African returns, laughs 'Hee Hee Hee', again shoulders his bags, takes her arm and starts her out on another walk. A service car drives up, the girl rushes over; with some difficulty she opens the passenger door and gets in, followed by the little African. The service car drives off, stops at the beginning of the next block, ejecting the little African with his bags in his hands.
- That's the whole story?
- Yes. Maybe, since you've described Dostoevsky's story so well, you could tell me how I failed to live up to the level of his ridiculous man?
- You mean why you froze? Because the girl was part of that little Los Angeles world of yours that had turned unlovable, and she didn't ask for your help.
- Why should my help wait on being asked?
- Because acting merely by rule to create a utopia of love is nevertheless to be acting without love.
- And all it would take to recover love was to be asked for help?
- It's your feelings were talking about. You tell me.
- That's all it would take.
___________________
* The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Monday, November 27, 2017

Leaders Who Betray



- I get the impression many of your ideas you make up as we go along. Am I right?
- You're right.
- So you won't be offended by my saying that often your ideas could be clearer.
- Do you have any particular ideas in mind?
- I have a particular problem in mind, one we've already talked about which I think many of your other ideas might help us solve.
- If they were clearer.
- Yes.
- And what problem is that?
- Why political leaders, the ones with the best ideas, betray the people who elect them. It seems that they don't do it out of self interest, not directly, but rather they do it to serve the interest of their class - the class of leaders. But why do they do this? Wait, don't answer. First I'd like to gather together what you've said in the past. You've said leaders who betray have been educated to follow rules they haven't learned or confirmed by their own experience.* Science, laws relating classes of things with classes of things, isn't good enough for leaders. They need the individual experiment with ideas philosophy provides. Correct?
- Yes.
- You found a model for this in the Genesis story of the expulsion from Eden. Adam is condemned to agriculture, to work the land with pain. Agriculture is repetitive, thus rule guided, compared to the free wandering of a shepherd. God favors the sacrifice of the shepherd Abel over that of the land-working Cain.** You cite, from Ezekiel 34,*** King David watching over stray sheep as a model for self government in society: every individual is responsible for bringing back those in their community who stray. A leader can behave like a shepherd or a farmer: to be rule guided in harvesting votes, or genuinely concerned with saving those at risk. Leaders have to know how we go wrong, and to be able to teach others to recognize this in time to stop it from happening. Leaders have to understand that democracy is sharing of power between equals in power. Equality in power comes from economic independence. Having place to live and food to eat allows discussion of how life might best develop from there to go on without fear and resentment. Prostitution shows how political power is not identical to social power. The security of home which is the basis of political equality is lost when the prostitute exchanges control over her body for the freedom represented by a sum of money.**** Politicians who gain their position by compromise are a kind of prostitute: acting by rule guiding choice which compromises to accept, which to reject, they are agriculturalists, are incapable of the power arising from the self determination of democracy. They do however share power with other leaders who they enact their compromises with, and their loyalty is to them rather than to the people as a whole. Loyalty to social class arises like the belief of the buyer of a prostitute that he acquires the prostitute's beauty and admiration in exchange for his money.*****
- I said all that?
- You know you did. Prostitution, agriculture, leaders as class, science vs. philosophy, rules coming out of social practice vs. individual practice. We can't trust leaders who prostitute themselves by making a principle to always compromise, who "harvest" votes rather than shepherd people, who've learned "scientific" rules of compromise by a life in politics, who lack diverse experience outside of institutions.
- And you'd like me to clarify all this?
- If you can.
- Let's talk about it further, now really I can't, except maybe add what to look for in a untrustworthy leader. Leaders might say all the right things, might even say what we say here. But look to the company they keep. Democracy, remember, is founded on bodily freedom.****** The democrat in his body desires, likes the company of other democrats; their public habits are in accord. Don't trust a Bernie Sanders who throws his arm around his supposed opponent Hilary Clinton. Don't trust the ex-Greek finance minister, now founder of the European Diem party Yanis Varoufakis who took as advisers influential neo-liberal economists who agreed with him that their operating principles were inapplicable,******* who nevertheless insisted the ruling myth of the leadership class must be compromised with for the sake of retaining power and having an opportunity to accomplish anything at all.
______________
* Philosophy & Science of Betrayal
** Abel Is More Able  
Eve In The Garden Of Eden
*** Bringing Back Stray Sheep

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Real Democracy

 

- A new book purports to answer the question why the U.S. government hasn't prosecuted any bank executive for the crimes leading to the 2008 economic collapse. Have you seen it?
- The Chicken-Shit Club.
- Yes. It's argument is that these financial crimes are hard to prove in court, and U.S. prosecutors are proud of their near 100% win record thanks to their never prosecuting cases with uncertain outcomes, to their choosing to settle out of court instead.
- And what do you think of that argument?
- It's essentially the same line taken by president at the time Obama who offered the excuse it wasn't clear that a crime has been committed, obviously untrue.
- Why?
- What could be a clearer case of fraud than Goldman-Sachs telling customers to buy what they themselves were at the same time ridding themselves of as quickly as possible? Or Wells Fargo opening without permission millions of fraudulent accounts in the names of their customers? A few years ago a federal court judge, writing in the New York Review of Books*, said there was no doubt that crimes had been committed, but prosecutors didn't prosecute corporate executives because they were not in the habit of prosecuting corporate executives: it just wasn't done.
- Prosecutors were afraid of losing if they prosecuted the corporations themselves, and they didn't want to prosecute corporate executives because that 'just wasn't something they do'.
- Yes. The same impunity of corporations and executives can be seen in the lack of prosecution of banks and their executives for creating millions of fraudulent deeds to property they now wanted to sell that they'd bought as a package without deeds, the actual practice that led up to the financial collapse of 2008. Banks to this very day** continue to produce fraudulent documents as they sell off their accumulated foreclosed properties from the collapse.
- A more convincing explanation is that many of the government prosecutors would within a few years be working at vastly greater salary for the executives and companies they made favorable out-of-court deals with.
- I agree. We're not seeing the result of inefficiency of professional practice but justice being bought out; outright corruption dressed up as business as usual.
- What did you want to ask me about?
- I had just gotten used to the idea we don't live in much of a democracy because virtually all elected officials had been bought out by corporate "donations". That wasn't so bad, because the government though a lot isn't everything. Everyday life goes on. But now we see the finance industry, the largest industry in the country, in addition to buying the government, under the protection of the government they've bought is waging direct war on the people of the country. Yet life goes on as if everyone is doing the job they claim they are doing, the government watching out for the people and finance helping them out with their money.
- Again, what did you want to ask me?
- Don't be impatient. I know corruption is nothing new. I wanted to ask you if this is new, the openness of the corruption, and the way life goes on as if nothing much is wrong.
- Would you say the feeling of unreality is related to the sense that we are supposed to be living in a democracy yet are not? That we were willing to accept that our vote didn't count if somehow something was left of democracy in the way people lived together? And that the corporations getting away with literally millions of crimes against their customers challenges the sense that everyday life can be going on as usual?
- Yes. Democracy isn't rule of the many, or rule of the poor; it's a deal made by the poor with the rich that the rich wouldn't rob too much and in exchange the poor wouldn't take away their property.
- And that deal has been broken, yet we still think we are living in a democracy. Thus our feeling of unreality at being confronted with the fact that the deal between rich and poor has unquestionably been broken.
- So what do you think?
- We see here in our times how democracy ends, but have you ever wondered how it began?
- Where the idea came from to get rid of the property qualification for citizenship?
- Yes.
- Ancient Athens.
- I mean how had the rich convinced themselves the poor wouldn't vote them out of their riches, and how had the poor convinced themselves the rich wouldn't rob them blind?
- What did the Athenians themselves say? What about Pericles' funeral oration from Thucydides?
Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft. We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about"..."Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics—this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.
- Would you agree then that democracy is a theory of political life that is being tested in its actual practice?
- What theory?
- Self control, and self-knowledge creates a human being that can reach productive agreement with other human beings irrespective of how much property they own. If you think about it, it's really a wild idea. What is it about this character of human being that allows this agreement?
- You tell me. The idea really does seem to come out of nowhere. There wasn't, was there, precedent in history before the Athenians came up with it?
- There was perhaps a different kind of precedent.
- What kind?
- The so-called Pre-Socratic philosophers, who made claims about nature that it was all variations in the shape or assemblage of water, or air, or a combination of elements. While we see change in nature, actually, they thought, something was staying the same. Water was always there, or air, or a combination of elements.
- I see. Democracy is a theory of political life that says that, produce a human character of the sort that knows itself and controls itself, and something human stays constant in political life, and that constant is what we mean by democracy, not good relation between classes or voting rights. Is that what you mean?
- Yes. We live in a country where many or even most have or would like to have democratic character, yet the actual government and economic life no longer are of the kind a people with democratic character should be able to make for themselves. Because we see nature on the same terms as we've been accustomed to see political life, the unchanging behind the changing, our political life which no longer has that form strikes us as "unreal".

Further Reading:
It's Not Real
_____________________
The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High-Level Executives Been Prosecuted?
** Chain of Title