Reflections on Aphorisms #65

Aphorism 103

The author must keep his mouth shut when his work starts to speak.

Nietzsche

Interpretation

Nietzsche is often overlooked as a novelist. Admittedly, I’m not terribly familiar with his work, but I think that one of the things that Nietzsche does really well is to write without preaching in novels like Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Of course, Nietzsche was somewhat unbalanced, and there are definitely places where he doesn’t seem to follow his own advice (perhaps out of frustration), but there is something to be said for the idea that a story should tell itself.

One of the things that I’ve always been bothered by is the morality play.

Even in my youth I found myself being critical of contrived plots and deliberate lessons in stories (barring Scripture, where I considered it justified for its religious purposes though not necessarily satisfying as a storytelling method), even though I did not have what could be described as a sophisticated manner of interpretation.

Pretty much the only work of this sort which escaped my ire was Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, although this could perhaps be forgiven because the preachy interludes were part of a framing narrative directed toward the ruler.

One of the reasons for this, as I’ve come to understand it over the past twenty years, is that the stories hold in themselves such great meaning that an explication is often needless. Carl Jung would say that this occurs in the expression of archetypal ideas: things so timeless and so inherent to the human condition that they’re immediately obvious to the reader.

Another hint here is the presence of polemical narratives.

Polemical narratives can be great when they’re not overt. I barely (but fondly) recall Machiavelli’s The Prince, and more solidly remember Par Lagerkvist’s The Dwarf and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich from my college days as examples of books that showed what not to do in life.

None of these stories (The Prince is not perhaps a story, but there’s a lot of deep subtext and it can be understood as a story through the right historical perspective) overtly condemns the subject of the story, and as a result they are able to make their point clear through a variety of methods.

The Prince is presented as a how-to guide to leadership, but has satirical and sardonic points throughout. The Dwarf shows us an example of the sort of horrid person who represents the worst parts of ourselves, and whose motivations and actions echo our own moral weakness. The Death of Ivan Ilyich decries a society that is corrupt and debased, which achieves an air of propriety without actually being morally decent.

They’re all great works.

Take, on the other hand, the works of Ayn Rand. Anthem is a tremendous expression of an important idea, but Rand never misses an opportunity to snipe at and belittle her opponents. In her fiction and her non-fiction, she diverts from the core of the issue to make sure that people know what she’s aiming at. She’s got a mind that could rival almost any other modern thinker, but is so consumed by this knowledge that her potential is left fallow most of the time.

I choose Rand as an example here, but that’s because Rand is actually a good writer whose weakness gets the better of her. You could look at half a dozen modern writers publishing books this year and see a lack of talent pumping out political or cultural screeds that attract people based on their appeal to their coreligionists (because even the secular works of such writers have a cultic quality), and that’s the sort of thing that Nietzsche decries.

A good work speaks for itself. I think of Harry Potter as an example of this; despite being a work intended for children it manages to include deeply heroic and archetypal themes that bind some of the meaning of reality within its pages.

At no point does Rowling stop to lecture the reader about personal faults or failings (with the possible exception of the Dudleys, but they’re more comedic figures than morality play villains), and the result is that there’s a little more nuance and a push to explore and examine the point behind the pages, instead of just consuming passively.

Resolution

Don’t over-explain.

Bring meaning, not message.

If it’s meaningless, don’t drone on about it.

Reflections on Aphorisms #64

Somewhat productive day today. I got to reading about scrolls. That’s not a typo. Scrolls. Like, medieval scrolls.

Did you know that when one dude died they sent a scroll around basically half of England and a good chunk of France in what is basically a medieval version of the condolence card?

Yeah, that’s kinda cool, I guess.

Aphorism 102

“Know thyself”? If I knew myself, I’d run away.

Goethe

Interpretation

Here we see that Goethe can match witticisms with Wilde.

Of course, the point of an aphorism is that there’s a compelling surface and deeper depths to think about.

In this case, Goethe hits on a few complex topics.

Yesterday I talked about self-deception, and I think that it’s perhaps no coincidence that there’s a little overlap between this and Wilde’s statements, so I’m not going to go into too much depth on it. It’s also no coincidence that one of the stories that shaped my first knowledge of self-deception was written by Goethe.

I think that one of the best ways to think about oneself is to reflect on one’s worst moments.

This may sound a little bit of a downer, but I view it as a sort of off-shoot of stoicism.

What the stoics would do is that they would take the worst possible event, look at the outcomes, and determine that they could still go on.

The thing with my reflection is that I look at my worst vices and then tell myself that I still have a chance to improve.

By looking at the weakness and imperfections within myself I force myself to move onward from where I currently am, because I don’t find myself particularly good. I’m sometimes a little disappointed when I take stock of my virtues, because a lot of them have reasons that are less than noble.

“Oh hey, I don’t drink. Right, because I hate the taste and the side-effects. Not a giant virtue there!”

The secret here is that you can build on that.

I tell myself each day that I’m going to do at least one thing, one virtuous thing, that isn’t something that should be taken for granted or that I already do regularly.

The scary thing there is that I don’t always succeed. The nice thing, however, is that there’s always room for improvement.

When you keep improving, eventually you’re bound to reach a better place.

Resolution

Do one thing each day that is better than its equivalent the prior day.

Confront my weaknesses.

Never be impatient with the progress of growth.

Reflection on Aphorisms #63

Today we hit 100 aphorisms. It’s been a bit of a journey, taking a little over two months with no breaks, but it’s been worth it.

One of the things that I love best about doing this is that it gives me a challenge to engage with the thoughts of some of the greatest people to ever live. It’s been a tremendously enriching experience, and I hope to continue it for as long as I live.

Aphorism 100

The basis of optimism is sheer terror.

Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s best statements are intended to provoke a response, and this is no exception.

Of course, at its surface this seems like it would be self-contradictory. In the traditional dichotomy, terror and optimism are at opposite ends (or nearly opposite ends) of the spectrum of outlooks.

However, there’s perhaps a sliver of truth to this.

One of the things that I’ve noticed ever since I became “enlightened” to it (the top experience I had in college, by a decent margin) is the nature and prevalence of self-deception.

I think this was probably because I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and put my soul into reading classic texts, finding like-minded companions along the way. I had a professor who stressed the concept of self-deception in works like Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. There were other books, including The Sorrows of Young Werther and Things Fall Apart that I experienced in the same class that added some nuance to this.

One of the things about self-deception is that almost all faulty outlooks are based out of it. Optimism is faulty in the sense that it is not capable of accurately perceiving the world, though I think it may also be fair to say that it has tangible benefits.

The motives for self-deception vary, but one of the most potent ones is terror.

There are a few reasons for this.

First, there’s something to be said for the fact that the world is absolutely incomprehensibly fear-inducing.

It’s a giant primordial ball of chaos.

And we’re just standing on it, basically hoping that things work out all-right.

The fact is that somehow, miraculously, they do. However, that is a result of so much sacrifice (both in the present and in the entirety of the past), that it’s a difficult thing to contemplate. We’re adapted for our world, molded to it and molding it to us. All the same it’s contained within a system so incredibly complex that any number of horrible things could plague our minds.

So we excise them all, aiming to protect ourselves from the dark.

I consider the fear of the dark to be an entirely rational fear. Not just because I myself am afraid of the dark, but because the dark is the fulfillment and physical embodiment of the chaotic unknown.

During the hardest part of my life, the time that probably pushed me to and perhaps a little past my breaking point, I remember being so terrified of the dark that I slept in front of the television with a standing lamp on next to me.

Later, during my first year teaching, I found it intolerable to drive home under a starless sky. There was a stretch of the route home that took me along a frontage road, and at parts of it the only lights would be from my own headlights. Normally have satisfied me but in this case the darkness was just too much to bar.

I started taking a different route home to avoid the dark. Once the stress diminished and I felt more confident, I didn’t mind the route.

The self-deception of optimism can be a similar form of aversion to darkness. By avoiding the contemplation of a terrible outcome, it becomes less real and less threatening.

Of course, I do not wish to merely tear down optimism. As I said earlier, it has value, and I think that Wilde is oversimplifying for the point of getting a response. If you want to see if someone is being optimistic to shield themselves from danger, see what happens when they are confronted with reality.

A healthy person responds to reality. One who is sick ignores it.

Resolution

Respond to reality as it presents itself.

Be open about fears.

Consider the worst in the future, but the best in the past.

Aphorism 101

Never show a risk number, even if it is right.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Because we’re talking about optimism and self-deception, I think that this is a case that logically follows its predecessor.

There are a few reasons you don’t want to consider risk when making decisions, at least not a mathematically derived question of risk.

First, one’s response to risk should always be found in the balance of fragility, resilience, and anti-fragility.

For instance, I do not take any excessive risks with money right now because I do not have the money to take risks with. I’m comfortable, but I can’t afford risk.

When I have extra money, I will often take risks with it. There’s less of a reason to hold back in this case because I can afford to hunt for a risk.

The problem with presenting a risk number is that it ignores this part of the equation.

The second problem is more in line with Wilde’s ideas. You don’t know what the future holds. We live in a world in which the vast majority of everything is beyond us. I struggle to find words to describe how far we are removed from knowledge of the future.

It’s like lying: when you lie you pit your wits against the entirety of the universe. If it at least seems to end well, you got lucky, but the truth is that most of the time there will be a problem later down the road that you can trace back to a lie.

In this case, you try to tell the truth, and it’s no less difficult.

One of the things that we have said as a culture is that lying is hard. It’s something that people used to back up polygraph tests (which don’t generally work), because a liar needs to actually try to lie.

The truth is a little more complicated, as truth tends to be.

Both lying and telling the truth are difficult. You can often speak easily, but the speech is fundamentally meaningless or so contextualized that it doesn’t matter.

Consider this writing itself. The act of putting words on a page is trivially easy for me. Spaghetti. Isotope. Fluorescence (which I originally messed up the vowels in, so I’m not even fully correct in my assertion!). The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plains. She sells sea shells by the sea shore. I think, therefore I am.

The act of speaking truthfully, the act of finding Truth, is not an easy one.

And you can mess it up really easily.

Resolution

Be sure that what I claim is true is really true.

Don’t think I know more than I do.

Don’t mistake the apparent simplicity of an act for a facile nature.

Reflections on Aphorisms #62

A customarily short Sunday post. Took the day off as a rest day, and it was really good, but I’ve also gone past my bed time to write this. Oops!

Aphorism 99

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth.

Wilde

Interpretation

There’s a powerful social force that drives us to be something other than ourselves.

I don’t necessarily mean this to say that there’s any conscious intent or malice, but it’s a sort of intersection of conscious and unconscious factors.

We want to look good at all times, and we’re keenly aware that we don’t always look good. At the very least, we know we could look better than we do, even if we have the (over-)confidence to not feel insufficient.

So I think there’s a hesitancy to associate who you are with your own public face. I certainly put off writing about any philosophical matters for far too long (after being more bold about it in my youth) because of this.

Internet anonymity creates a sort of dark mirror of this. Because people are freed from any risk of getting in trouble, they have a willingness to show the worse parts of themselves. Sometimes they don’t even realize it, the sides of their personality that are coming out to play aren’t the ones that they associate themselves with.

I read an article the other day about racists that leave racist organizations, and one of the things that’s interesting is that they’ll relapse not into rejoining those organizations but back into hate, even after they make the conscious effort to try to put it behind them.

Taking an uneducated guess, I’d wager that this has to do with the part of the psyche that we don’t know. Carl Jung calls this the shadow, but we can think of it more specifically in this sense as a weakness or injury that has impeded the individual.

Now, I can’t claim to be an expert on hate. It’s not something I’ve had the misfortune to be around first-hand, at least in the more narrow sense (I’ve definitely been around some spiteful, malicious people, though) that we would define as a hate group.

But the internet has a lot of people on it who revel in chaos and destruction, and one of the things that doubtless feeds into this is the lack of any solid value structure. Without a foundation, a person cannot build a shelter against the pain and uncertainty of the world.

You can reject everything, or you can accept the toxicity. In a way both are the same; you can’t reject everything without becoming a sort of archetypal Serpent, and you can’t become toxic without devaluing existence itself.

We look down on people who behave this way, who hold these views and attitudes. It’s not a matter of elitism, it’s a matter of survival. If we do not condemn them, at least in the sense that we keep them at arm’s length for our own safety, their ideas are infections and their actions are poisonous.

The internet provides a mask, and lets these people hide their nature (or, at least, show it selectively without risking too much of their own person).

However, it also gives freedom for the noble to rise up. The masks that we wear can allow even a timid person to speak with freedom, and the power of interconnection allows them to be a force for good.

It’s just important to be intentional about it.

I’ve entered a lifestyle where I depend on radical honesty. I say what I think much more than previously (to be fair, an improvement on the bare minimum is not necessarily much of an improvement, and I need to get better about that), and I try never to lie or evade.

Of course, the really important thing about this is that you need to get out of the habit of doing the expedient thing. Being honest hurts a lot more if you do things you don’t want to be honest about.

Fortunately, generally people are good spirited about dealing with open and honest people. I’ve never had anyone use my honesty against me, even when they could easily do so. Some of that comes down to luck and a habit of carefully associating with those I consider virtuous, but it’s also a matter of trust.

If people know you’re honest and that you proffer information that is significant, they don’t look the gift horse in the mouth.

That, or maybe it’s that honesty is so rare that people don’t bother asking the questions that would entrap the truthful.

Resolution

Don’t do the things that lead to having secrets.

Be intentional about doing good.

Don’t lie.

Reflections on Aphorisms #61

Short post tonight because it’s basically my bed time and I didn’t sleep super well last night (thanks, eye deciding to spontaneously malfunction).

Writer’s note: It was going to be a short post, but then I decided to do an aphorism from Nietzsche. It is not a short post. I am so tired right now.

Aphorism 97

Arrogance in persons of merit affronts us more than arrogance in those without merit: merit itself is an affront.

Nietzsche

Interpretation

I think that one of the things that helps to understand Nietzsche here is the question of what arrogance is.

Arrogance isn’t necessarily the same as insolence. It’s when one takes what one currently has and is more akin to pride with a lack of consideration of others.

People without merit who have traits of arrogance may often be written off as merely insolent, but at the very least they are unlikely to wield the sort of power that makes arrogance more toxic.

I think that if this case were reversed, Nietzsche might change his tune.

Take Christ’s parable of the forgiven debt for an example.

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the accounting, one who owed him 10,000 talents was brought to him. 25 But because he could not repay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and his children and everything that he possessed, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ 27 And his master’s heart was moved with compassion and he released him and forgave him [canceling] the debt. 28 But that same slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began choking him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe!’ 29 So his fellow slave fell on his knees and begged him earnestly, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ 30 But he was unwilling and he went and had him thrown in prison until he paid back the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and they went and reported to their master [with clarity and in detail] everything that had taken place. 32 Then his master called him and said to him, ‘You wicked and contemptible slave, I forgave all that [great] debt of yours because you begged me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave [who owed you little by comparison], as I had mercy on you?’…

Matthew 18:23-33 Scripture quotations taken from the Amplified Bible.

In this case we see that one without merit (a debtor who had his loan forgiven) showing arrogance is incredibly distasteful.

Of course, even in this scenario there’s a benefit of a power structure, and one could argue that the unforgiving slave had earned merit in the sense that lacking debt made him superior to the slave who had not been forgiven, but I don’t think that this is any sort of merit (the parable focuses on slaves, and not aristocrats, for a reason). At least, it wouldn’t be merit in the sense Nietzsche would consider it, as he generally considers merit either in the terms of social success or in the form of moral virtue.

I think it’s safe to say that in the context of this statement, Nietzsche refers to the idea of merit as social success. After all, arrogance runs cross-purposes to virtue.

In this case, I’d generally have to disagree with Nietzsche. I’ve always found that those who are arrogant without any good cause to be get under my skin more.

One example of this is when I have students who insist that their capabilities are greater than they really are. Now, there’s a few particular reasons why this is a really painful experience for teachers.

First, if you have a benevolent interest in helping people, it hurts to have to disabuse them of notions of grandeur. This is an example of the distinction between the “nice” thing to do and the “kind” thing to do, and it’s always a painful line to walk.

One of the issues here is that arrogance is posturing. Whether it stems from confidence, ignorance, or insecurity, it looks the same on its surface.

Obviously, you need different approaches for each of these cases. Those who are arrogant due to over-confidence need to be given a realistic perspective, as do those who are ignorant of their needs, but the method for doing so differs.

It’s dangerous to confront the arrogant because you don’t know what part of the psyche feeds into that arrogance. Sometimes it’s really obvious (we’re social creatures who want to look good, so we won’t admit weakness in public; some people overcompensate), and you’re able to talk to the person and express the inner thoughts that they’re not comfortable to say themselves.

The first time I went to a student and told them “You know, I don’t think you’re really comfortable with this” I found it to be a tremendous experience. It was a relief for both of us. I was able to help the student, who had been a little disruptive in class, move toward a less embarrassing course of action for them by working with them to give them positive opportunities to prove their potential and capabilities to their peers, and I was able to start really helping this kid with what they really needed.

Sometimes this is a repressed need and people click to it, and sometimes they don’t. Both over-confident and insecure arrogance actually function in much the same way, and I think this ties into notion of psychological complexes.

Ignorance is always difficult, at least for me, to deal with because you have to confront a need that people don’t feel.

This is often a place where you can crush someone if you do it wrong. You want to make sure that you help people improve, rather than just tearing them down. I’m not good at it, although I hope I will be someday.

Speaking as a recipient of this, it can be incredibly traumatic if handled in a way that brings destruction. If the stakes are high, disabusing someone of their ignorance can be as destructive as leaving them to fail on their own.

It requires a spirit of nurturing, not one of destruction, and it’s important to remember when dealing with the ignorantly arrogant that they never mean to cause harm.

One could argue that there’s an exceptional sting to arrogance in the life of someone who is otherwise virtuous, if we wish to interpret Nietzsche’s statement that way.

I don’t think that this necessarily makes sense. Even though a vice tends to be exacerbated in its obvious manifestations by the presence of virtues in other areas (i.e. someone who is generally virtuous shows flaws more than someone dissolute, because nobody expects much of the dissolute), a flawed saint is generally more tolerable than a monster who lacks pretension.

Of course, arrogance feeds off of self-superiority. Nietzsche could be pointing this out in this statement, since those who can legitimately consider themselves virtuous have been known on many occasions to abuse their privileges to rub it in.

Resolution

Forgive the debts others owe me, because I have been forgiven.

Don’t let a virtue distract from a vice.

Help others to become more aware of who they are to turn them into who they could be.

Review of The Hero With an African Face

I read Clyde Ford’s The Hero with an African Face (Amazon affiliate link) this week and found it to be one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Now, with that said, it’s not a book I’d recommend to a disinterested novice. It targets an audience already familiar, to an extent, with the work of Jung and Campbell. While this knowledge isn’t strictly necessary, it helps. People familiar with literary criticism in general should not have difficulties.

The Hero with an African Face shines in its respect and depth of interaction with the myths it presents. Ford does a tremendous job bringing everything together in a meaningful way. Likewise, he builds from simple to complex themes and topics.

He also does not try to cram the whole of African mythology into a single schema. He addresses the contrasting and parallel elements within individual cultures without over-simplification. Ford talks about both the myths and the culture surrounding them with great detail. This allows Westerners with different cultural assumptions than Africans to better appreciate the myths.

As is common among surveys of mythology, Ford groups the myths by topic. He spends some time with creation myths, then on to myths about the underworld, and so forth. He also, as mentioned earlier, focuses on the cultural origins of the myths. The Yoruba oreishas’ stories come separate from the stories of ancient Ghana. The exception to this is when they are deliberately compared, which is always marked.

I’m not an expert on African myth. My limited knowledge of the subject is much less than Ford’s, so I can’t critique his own knowledge. I can say with confidence that my knowledge of African mythology has grown by reading this book.

A book like this has three ways it can provide value.

The first is its information. Assuming Ford’s work is correct, The Hero with an African Face delivers. His work is recommended by experts, which I will have to satisfy myself with. While the body is just 200 pages long, each page carries new and significant information. The book cannot cover the entirety of African mythology, but it gives a foundation.

As a source of stories, the book has more ambiguity. Its length limits it, and its stories are often abridged. Despite this, it still offers glimpses at captivating, and unfamiliar, stories. Many of the stories show the deep archetypal underpinnings of storytelling. These stories are absent in the Western canon, and give a feel for the breadth of human expression. It gives a whole new context for understanding the modern African writer.

The last criteria is how pleasant the book is to read. Ford uses diagrams and images to great effect, and bolsters the text. He intersperses personal and historical experiences with stories and literary theory. The whole text rings with passion and conviction, and carries such meaning that it is hard to pull away from.

Ford is a master wordsmith. Although he contents himself to apply others’ methods to a new frontier, he elevates their work. By applying a different perspective, Ford unlocks secrets that others were blind to. In particular, his take on the heroic cycle is refreshing. Ford contrasts the fact-based Western culture with the expression-based African culture. This paints the picture of a hero who gains qualities, instead of one who passes waystones.

This is an easy book to recommend. It’s academic, but also bears intrinsic interest. It tells stories that touch on universal themes, and helps us interpret all stories. It deals with the individual and the whole of humanity in one marvelous attempt.

Reflections on Aphorisms #60

I’ve been keeping up with this as a daily thing for two months now. It’s given me a great opportunity to know myself better, but it’s also helped me process what I’ve learned and what other people have said better.

I am also becoming increasingly anxious that I will repeat myself unwittingly. I find it difficult to believe, since it’s not like I haven’t taken these quotes and thought about them and written about them at length, but at the same time my memory isn’t always great. That some of my writing gets done while my brain in the littoral boundaries between wake and sleep probably doesn’t help. I think I’m going to try to move my writing more into the morning to overcome this.

Aphorism 95

Prudery is a form of avarice.

Stendhal

Interpretation

I belong to a fairly conservative religious tradition (at least inasmuch as standards of modesty are concerned; we’re a Wesleyan off-shoot), and one of the things that I found myself overcoming as I went from a youth to being a man was the difference between legalism and devotion.

One of the things that I found when I was younger is that I would object to people doing things because they were forbidden.

Now, obviously I’m faithful in the religious sense and I follow these codes in my own life (being body-shy, I can’t claim any virtue in it, and I’m not going to move anyone to prurient thoughts in any sane attire), but I think that Stendhal’s point here can be more generally directed toward legalism.

My theory, since this is what it wound up being in my own life, is that legalism is generally a product of having a code of morality, but not having the detachment from desire that is needed to follow it. If you find yourself lacking in moral virtue, it’s easier to project that failure onto others and paint them as the problem with society than it is to address the problem in your own life. This is particularly true if the lack of moral virtue exists within what Jung would refer to as the “shadow” of the personality.

Demanding that one’s code, even an absolute moral code, be applied to others by force is a sign that one has not mastered one’s own desires. Now, this isn’t necessarily a universal statement (after all, there are religions and philosophies that demand absolute worldwide devotion and make this a goal of the faithful), but in general if a desire to control others stems from emotion it’s a result of a failure to control the self.

Another element here can be wanting pleasure only for oneself. Basically the “stop having fun” front. I think that this is basically a second manifestation of the first, with perhaps a little more greed because there’s not as much of a moral foundation underneath it.

I’m not necessarily anti-prude (e.g. I don’t care for public displays of affection), but I also understand that people ought to have freedom, within only the most minimal constraints.

Resolution

Don’t be the fox who curses the grapes that grow on the high vine, out of reach.

Obey the rules laid out for me without resenting them.

Contemplate the reasons for morality, not the violations.

Aphorism 96

Progress is the mother of problems.

Chesterton

Interpretation

One of the things that I heard once is that the process of scientific advancement has been to discover new problems to replace the ones we’ve solved.

Chesterton’s what might be considered a dogmatic conservative. He’s not as stuffy and annoying as we might assume based on that title, but he still has a certain blind spot to the values and merits of change.

So with that said I don’t think he’s necessarily in agreement that attempts to improve the world generally do.

I’m more mixed in my own approach: the problem is that we see change as good when we do it, even when it’s definitely not good, and bad when other people do it, which is usually correct.

The secret is to master both agency and humility. Following this path one can actively seek to make change, but one also avoids the dangers and pitfalls of hubris.

Chesterton is a reactionary, opposed to the society-destroying changes of the early 20th century, and I think he’s actually quite a wise figure. Going against the zeitgeist, he manages to keep some semblance of sanity when everything else goes crazy, though he’s far from perfect.

I think, however, that Chesterton is after something deeper here.

Chesterton was one of the people who felt a very deep, almost mystical, spiritual connection to God, and saw the society around him losing that same connection.

This is something that we see repeated a lot in various ways, and even in a strictly secular sense something of the spiritual nature of humanity has been suppressed by modern society. Of course, you can argue all you want that spirituality is nonsense and irrational, but the counterpart to it is that we’ve also lived with spirituality being an integral part of the average person’s life from the beginning of history to the 20th century.

Part of the problem with spirituality, from the perspective of those who seek progress, is that the answers it contains are timeless. We can aspire for greater knowledge and enlightenment, but even then it remains the case that in the world of spirituality it is the timeless and eternal that is pursued, not the novel and changing. Even in times of transition in how we understand the world on a fundamental level, the goals and the imperatives of the collective unconscious, to borrow Jung’s term for it, will change at best at a glacial pace and typically not at all. It’s more of a biological part of us than we think.

Resolution

Don’t abandon the timeless truth for the fleeting passion.

There is nothing new under the sun, not in the literal sense but the metaphorical one.

A problem may go away, but problems will never be gone. (Christ: “The poor will always be with you.”)

Review of Haroun and the Sea of Stories

Salman Rushdie is a significant figure in modern writing, and I recently read his Joseph Anton: A Memoir (my review). In it he mentions the conception and the development of Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Amazon affiliate link), and how it related to the very real issues in his life at the time he wrote it.

As an English teacher I focused heavily on young adult literature, and Haroun and the Sea of Stories is aimed at younger audiences than I typically worked with, but that doesn’t mean that it is devoid of merit.

Where Rushdie gets things right is in having an ironclad story concept and premise. This is a book you can read to kids, because the surface-level action is top-notch and flows smoothly, the wordplay introduces new vocabulary while also adding comic twists on characters, and the deeper subtext is great for discussion and bears deeper themes.

To describe this book in one word, I would say that it is mythological.

It’s set in a world inspired by Rushdie’s Indian Muslim heritage, with a strong helping of literary references beyond that. It’s exotic without being needlessly so, and that helps contribute to an overall spirit of whimsy and discovery.

There are some darker themes and elements: there’s allusions to Rushdie’s life hiding from a fatwa calling for his assassination, but only in a very veiled and indirect form as part of Rashid’s troubles with his storytelling. A central conflict between light and darkness, which is resolved by both sides coming together in harmony, could be thematically scary. The protagonist’s mother leaves his father for another man at the start of the story.

With this said, none of the content in the book is gratuitous. It all takes place in a larger narrative, and its goal is to raise and answer questions, not just expose children to ideas without giving them the foundation from which to deal with a complex world.

Of course, as someone familiar with Rushdie, it’s clear that these are all taken from events in his own life. He handles them respectfully, without claiming to have perfect knowledge. The bond between Rashid and Haroun that develops over the course of the story is touching, and delves deep into the nature of fatherhood. Rushdie’s life as a condemned writer shows through the cracks as well.

It’s worth noting that the epic battle between good and evil is presented in a way that is very deliberately pro-freedom. Rushdie doesn’t condemn his opponents as single-faceted villains, and they’re given as much complexity as is possible in such a work, but he makes clear why they’re the villains and why it is necessary that people have the freedom to speak and to tell stories.

Reading the book as someone interested in Rushdie’s life and evaluating it for its use in the classroom or teaching, I found it quite enjoyable nonetheless on entertainment merits. Rushdie has a very clear and compelling style, and while he dresses it up in a fanciful, almost Seussian, manner for the sake of being amusing, he does so with a lyricism and authenticity that is infectious.

There were quite a few points where I had to just stop and guffaw at something that had been said. Rushdie makes sure that there aren’t obtuse things that only make sense to adults (and the book is free of crass double meanings), but there are definitely parts that are absurdly humorous or deeply profound that only more mature readers can fully appreciate.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a fantastic book, and one I look forward to reading with children. It’s tremendous for its storytelling, sublime in its language, lofty in its message, and meaningful to its core. There’s a few positively excellent bedtime stories in here, and beneath them lie deep depths of wisdom and artistic expression.

Reflections on Aphorisms #59

Cut back on caffeine today. Feeling a lot better (at least until the headaches start), but also really kinda drowsy and tired. Please forgive any silly spelling mistakes, because I’m typing with my eyes falling closed.

Upside: I’m not tempted to stay up late watching videos on YouTube.

I should just delete my YouTube account.

Aphorism 93

It is useless to close the gates against ideas; they overleap them.

Klemens von Metternich

Interpretation

One of the ideas of history is that there are times when certain ideas and expressions will be heard regardless of the individuals; a collective guides humanity in a certain direction and nobody can really claim to have enough control to stop changes or force things along a certain path.

I don’t know that I agree with it wholesale, because it’s a little too teleological for me to accept as a historical method, but it’s also true in a sense.

There’s a prevailing spirit of the times (not in the spiritual sense, but in the zeitgeist sense), and eventually it gets going along a certain path.

I was recently thinking about the movie V for Vendetta, and the notion that there’s something very archetypal about a rogue rising readily repelling regression (or, that is, people rebelling against tyrants).

If we buy into Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious, or the more traditional notion of a fundamental nature of humanity, it goes to follow that there are times when the conditions that people are exposed to will lead them to act in certain ways.

These expressions of human volition are not necessarily predictable, but they’re nonetheless reproducible (in a scientific sense, though it is practically impossible to set up the same events twice).

This is one of the functions of the historian: they look into the past and see how people act in certain conditions.

Ideas are the most powerful expression of the zeitgeist. Actions may speak louder than words, but both flow from ideas. Without an idea, there is no action and no speech.

The great problem of ideas is that they’re contagious. We are social animals, and we spend our time trying to figure out other peoples’ ideas. At best, this is just a primal instinct, and at worst this can be deliberate sabotage or usurpation. In either case, it’s a necessary process. If we don’t look into the other, we will never fully know the self. The eye sees not its own reflection.

If you have an idea, a great idea, it cannot remain silent. There’s a Christian children’s song, familiar to me from my youth, that has the following song:

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!”

I’ll spare the repetitive verses that have now come echoing back into my head, but the actual meaning here is quite sublime.

The way that cultures live and die is by ideas. The song I just mentioned carries a meme that encourages the spreading and sharing of ideas. Technically, it actually has a few separate memes in just the sentence above, but we won’t worry about that.

Von Metternich’s point is this:

An idea can penetrate anything when it’s given the chance to do so.

Resolution

Give ideas the space to grow.

Look for the idea that is common and the one that is not.

Don’t think you can control the hearts of others. That’s hubris.

Aphorism 94

All rumors about a public figure are to be deemed untrue until he threatens to sue.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

I would like to think that even if I didn’t understand anything Taleb has to say I could still appreciate his pithy style.

I probably understand very little of what Taleb is saying. That’s never stopped me before and I won’t let it stop me now.

One of the best things that any good thinker keeps at their disposal is Occam’s Razor. It’s a very simple rhetorical device, and it’s been simplified to the following:

The simplest solution tends to be right.

Typically, when I look at anything said by or about public figures, the rule is: “They’re saying it to get something.”

The veracity is not significant. The truth of the matter, especially in politics, is that people say things specifically for the point of what the saying gets them.

Whether or not words have any bearing on truth is insignificant.

There’s something that Jordan Peterson once said, and I’m too tired to look it up so I’m gonna just paraphrase it and butcher it:

If you say something that you know to be true, you’re pitting your wit against the reality of a complex universe.

One of the outcomes of this is that a mature person won’t give statements which are motivated lies (or at the very least motivated stretchings of the truth) more than a moment’s notice.

So I almost fell asleep in front of the TV not too long ago, and I had the news on. I can guarantee that 80%, maybe 90% of what I heard was basically just bloviation, and about 1% of it will have any impact on my life. Not even my daily life, mind you, but my life in general.

One of the nice things about reality being so complex is that a lot of the moving pieces aren’t really moving all that much in the grand scheme of things. This is untrue in the individual’s life, but very true in the sphere of politics.

To get back to the point, look for the things you can’t say, because those are the things people don’t want you to say.

If those things are true, run.

Resolution

Say the uncomfortable truth.

The tongue is the weakest muscle. This isn’t because of a lack of physical power. It’s due to a lack of character.

Never open the mouth if the tongue tastes untruth.

Review of Letters to A Young Writer

I recently listened to Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer (Amazon affiliate link), and since I often write reviews I figured I’d write a review of it.

If that feels like an uninspiring opening, you might not be too far from the truth.

Letters to a Young Writer was born out of the seeds of a blog, which McCann mentions in an early chapter, and it feels kind of like a blog.

So, with that said, you have the crux of the weakness in the book. It’s a collection of essays, but they’re all largely independent of each other. The result isn’t terrible, but it means that the entire book has very little build-up and delivery.

If you’re looking for a more comprehensive book on writing, I’d suggest John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 (my review), or quite frankly any of the longer-form books.

With that said, there’s only a couple criticisms that I would care to level McCann’s writing itself instead of the format of the book.

First, it’s overly flowery, and this is keeping in mind that it’s written for writers, and we tend to be flowery sorts. When McCann’s trying simply to inspire, this works really well. However, there are times when he could be giving a practical insight but it’s lost under layers of wanting to look good.

Second, it’s very experiential. McCann acknowledges this and provides plenty of places where he confesses to not knowing things (which I consider a great positive), but the problem is that when you combine this with the flowery nature of the prose you wind up with situations where you get an almost Montaigne-esque “Oh, but I don’t know for sure.”

While that’s certainly better than pretending to know, and it does enable McCann to explore some avenues he might not otherwise want to talk about because he wouldn’t feel authoritative on them, it feels like he’s going off the cuff and hasn’t done research (the idea of whether writers should go for a MFA in writing, for instance, is one where he prevaricates in a particularly noticeable fashion).

As for inspiration, McCann is very inspiring in the sense that he offers good pick-me-ups and a lot of encouragement. Some of the work feels overly political or, perhaps, not political but attached to the notion that the current moment is radically different than all past moments.

To clarify what I mean, it feels like McCann tells the writer to write because only writers can bring truth and purpose to being. Now, I’m not necessarily opposed to that, as someone who is very into the theories of Jung and Campbell and the roles stories play to our psyche, but this sort of weird teleological devotion sends him off-topic.

If you’re into that, it works well for inspiration. It’s very emotional, however.

All-in-all, the fifty-two essays feel almost like they’re intended to be a once-a-week thing, but the question then is why one wouldn’t just look at a blog. McCann certainly is a gifted writer, and he hits some high points, but with an average length of about three pages the essays generally don’t build on what there is to know about writing beyond a very elementary level.

There are also parts that would be a little too crude for a young writer (i.e. a child), with McCann letting his language get a little coarse. It’s not excessive vulgarity, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting it in a classroom library or giving it to a student.

The audiobook was read by McCann himself, and I actually found him to do a really good job of putting emotion into it and making his meaning clear. He has an Irish accent and musical cadence that really makes his point build to a crescendo and carries more than just the letter of the word.

So do I recommend it?

It’s hard to say. At its price ($14 for a Kindle version at the time of writing), there are a lot of alternatives that could serve just as well, either in the form of blogs or more authoritative volumes. If you like McCann, or you’re looking for something like a writer’s devotional, then it might be more of an option.