Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Imaginary Audience

Let me describe what I see in front of me:

the Sunday edition of the NYTimes, Tricycle (a Buddhist magazine), a book of poetry by Emily Dickinson, The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang, The Energy of Delusion by Viktor Shklovsky;

and underneath the coffee table, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, and Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.

I am reading all of these books at the same (or sections of them)--in addition to the newspaper and magazine.

Lin Yutang talks about the "histrionic instinct". I have quoted extensively from his book in the previous post. He talks about our human drive to perform for others. He talks about how we are hardwired for the approval of an audience. Let me quote him once again:

"Consciously or unconsciously, we are all actors in this life playing to the audience in a part and style approved by them."

Right now I am blogging. There has been a recent explosion in blogging. The Internet is a suspended audience. You know people are watching; you just don't know how many or who these people are. The audience becomes more elusive. But it is only the promise of someone watching that we need. A virtual audience will do just fine.

In Las Vegas, eight years ago, I had an experience.

I became an actor in my own life. Was I imagining things? I deeply believed that my actions were central to the world. I adopted a persona based on these beliefs.

In adolescent psychology, this is called "imaginary audience." Another characteristic of adolescent egocentricism is the "personal fable". Professor Boughner of Rodgers State University writes: "adolescents imagine their own lives as mythical or heroic" and "they see themselves destined for fame or fortune".

These ideas seem closely related to what Lin Yutang calls the "histrionic instinct".

Eight years after my experience in Las Vegas, I set out to write my history. You can call this history my "personal fable".

The novel is called Lethe Bashar's Novel of Life.

Lethe Bashar is me eight years before, in Las Vegas. What defines Lethe's character is the "histrionic instinct".

My adolescence was a dream. I was under the spell of my own play-acting. I created a persona to feel important, to feel unique. (Could I be doing the same thing now? Writing the novel?)

I am writing the novel to understand the character and the dream. And to know the spell has truly ended.

Can the actor awaken from her performance at the end of the day?

The theater lights have turned off, the audience has gone home. The actor is still up on stage.

At a certain point, the role the actor plays can become self-destructive. The imagination fuels her sense of power as well as her sense of defeat. According to adolescent psychology, the actor thinks that she is invincible. Imagination becomes dangerous, a weapon. There are consequences for incessant dreaming. Sometimes this is called "idealism".

I compare my alter ego, Lethe Bashar, to Don Quixote. Lethe Bashar takes drugs and acts out an imaginary role as poet/writer. Don Quixote reads too many books and acts out an imaginary role as knight errant. Both go on journeys. They leave their homes.

The novel by Cervantes is a violent novel. It is funny, but it is also violent. Nabokov writes, "Both parts of Don Quixote form a veritable encyclopedia of cruelty. From that viewpoint it is one of the most bitter and barbarous books ever penned. And its cruelty is artistic."

What I have described to you is adolescent psychology. But couldn't we say this is adult psychology as well?

Lin Yutang writes, "The only objection is that the actor may replace the man and take entire possession of him."

The actor degenerates into a fool, a nutcase, like Don Quixote. We have seen many of these characters on reality television, on American Idol.

The audience laughs instead of cries. And yet somewhere inside we can relate to this foolishness. We empathize with Don Quixote.

There are many books at my house. Gazing at my library solidifies my sense of self. I surround myself with books, extensions of myself.

If I am an actor, books are my props. At the beginning of this essay I described to you "the set".

You are my audience right now. Your applause strengthens my purpose.

I cannot see the writer or the artist. I can only ruthlessly act out his needs and desires. The role is my destiny and my pre-destiny.

Destiny gets created somewhere.

Lin Yutang says that beyond the fear of God and the fear of death is the fear of one's neighbors.

In other words, society.

The audience is society. A child's first society is her mother and father.

I first started reading classical literature to my father when I was in middle school.

I hated it.

But he would make me go downstairs and sit with him on the couch. We would read for one hour. He had a collection of leather bound books that arrived in the mail each month.

The books literally cracked open they were so new. Each new edition had a frontispiece portrait of the author. The manila pages had illustrations. Under a block of letters that read, "PUBLISHED EXPRESSLY FOR THE PERSONAL LIBRARY OF," my father signed his name.

I couldn't understand what I was reading and that's why I despised reading with my father. It felt like a cruel joke.

For five years I read with my father almost every night.

Lin Yutang says the actor is seeking approval of the audience. The audience is society.

I really believe in my role as a writer. I don't know who I would "act out" instead. It's not easy to pick up another role.

We become who we are through sedimentation. Years of repetition. We work with the old drafts constantly, rewriting the ego. The future seems to hang on the success or failure of a single part.

I omitted the first line of this essay. I was making revisions. I will include that line here:

"I'm making discoveries about myself that are unsettling."

The unsettling part of a dream is not the dream itself, but discovering the dream is unreal.

Can I escape my role as a writer? Do I even want to?

CRA 5-28-08

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Lin Yutang on the "Histrionic Instinct"

Consciously or unconsciously, we are all actors in this life playing to the audience in a part and style approved by them.

This histrionic talent, together with the related talent for imitation, which is a part of it, are the most outstanding traits of our simian inheritance. There are undoubted advantages to be derived from this showmanship, the most obvious being the plaudits of the audience. But then the greater the plaudits, the greater also are the flutterings of heart back stage. And it also helps one to make a living, so that no one is quite to blame for playing his part in a fashion approved by the gallery.

The only objection is that the actor may replace the man and take entire possession of him. There are a few select souls who can wear their reputation and a high position with a smile and remain their natural selves; they are the ones who know they are acting when they are acting, who do not share the artificial illusions of rank, title, property and wealth, and who accept these things with a tolerant smile when they come their way, but refuse to believe that they themselves are thereby different from ordinary human beings. It is this class of men, the truly great in spirit, who remain essentially simple in their personal lives. It is because they do not entertain these illusions that simplicity is always the mark of the truly great. Nothing shows more conclusively a small mind than a little government bureaucrat suffering from illusions of his own grandeur, or a social upstart displaying her jewels, or a half-baked writer imagining himself to belong to the company of the immortals and immediately becoming a less simple and less natural human being.

So deep is our histrionic instinct that we often forget that we have real lives to live off stage. And so we sweat and labor and go through life, living not for ourselves in accordance with our true instincts, but for the approval of society, like "old spinsters working with their needles to make wedding dresses for other women," as the Chinese saying goes.

Lin Yutang, from The Importance of Living

Victor Shklovsky on "Quoting"

Quoting is necessary. I have said and will say again that we are walking holding on to the quotes, as we would hold onto a wall.

And, also, there is nothing truer than a quote, and the harder the work is, the harder is the task of quoting; and Tolstoy, whose work, whose soul, is continuously alive and continuously grows, is one of the most difficult examples.

. . .

Besides, the idea of quoting, the transporting of a thought into a new context, changes the original meaning of the phrase.

Victor Shklovsky

Monday, May 26, 2008


There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal. This is the thought of identity--yours for you, whoever you are, as mine for me. Miracle of miracles, beyond statement, most spiritual and vaguest of earth's dreams, yet hardest basic fact, and only entrance to all facts. In such devout hours, in the midst of the significant wonders of heaven and earth, (significant only because of the Me in the centre), creeds, conventions, fall away and become of no account before this simple idea. Under the luminousness of real vision, it alone takes possession, takes value. Like the shadowy dwarf in the fable, once liberated and look'd upon, it expands over the whole earth, and spreads to the roof of heaven.

Walt Whitman
(qtd. Lin Yutang)(bold mine)

Saturday, May 24, 2008


The ancient people who desired to have a clear moral harmony in the world would first order their national life; those who desired to order their national life would first regulate their home life; those who desired to regulate their home life would first cultivate their personal lives; those who desired to cultivate their personal lives would first set their hearts right; those who desired to set their hearts right, would first make their wills sincere; those who desired to make their wills sincere would first arrive at understanding; understanding comes from the exploration of the knowledge of things. When the knowledge of things is gained, then understanding is reached; when understanding is reached, then the will is sincere; when the will is sincere, then the heart is set right; when the heart is set right, then the personal life is cultivated; when the personal life is cultivated, then the home life is regulated; when the home life is regulated, then the national life is orderly; and when the national life is orderly, then the world is at peace. From the Emperor down to the common man, the cultivation of the personal life is the foundation of all. It is impossible that when the foundation is disorderly, the superstructure can be orderly. There has never been a tree whose trunk is slender and whose top branches are heavy and strong. There is a cause and a sequence in things, and a beginning and end in human affairs. To know the order of precedence is to have the beginning of wisdom.

(qtd. Lin Yutang)(bold mine)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Thomas L. Friedman on "Globalization"

And therein lies the central truth of globalization today: We're all connected and nobody's in charge. . .

And, once the smoke clears, I suspect we will find ourselves living in a world of globalization on steroids--a world in which key global economies are more intimately tied together than ever before.

It will be a world in which America will not be able to scratch its ear, let alone roll over in bed, without thinking about the impact on other countries and economies. And it will be a world in which multilateral diplomacy and regulation will no longer be a choice. It will be a reality and a necessity. We are all partners now.

Thomas L. Friedman, NYT

Mark Rothko on "creation"

It begins as an unknown adventure in an unknown space. It is at the moment of completion that in a flash of recognition they are seen to have the quantity and function which was intended. Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which one left the world in which they occurred.

Mark Rothko

(qtd. Anne Paris)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Damon Darlin on "Technology and Attention"

In a knowledge-based society in which knowledge is free, attention becomes the valued commodity. Companies compete for eyeballs, that great metric born in the dot com boom, and vie to create media that are sticky, another great term from this era. We are not paid for our attention span, but rewarded for it with yet more distractions.

Damon Darlin

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

David Gessner on "Writing Novels"

Yet no matter how much support you have, how many schedules you make or how many books you've written before, there remains the basic irrationality of the task: you are sitting by yourself trying to make something out of nothing, and you rarely know what's going to happen next. Creating your own world is an invitation to solipsism, if not narcissism, and as well as being alone when we work, we are left, for the most part, to judge ourselves if we have succeeded or failed at our tasks.

David Gessner

Monday, May 19, 2008

Ideals, and Reality

Anyways it is characteristic of humans to have a sad, vague and wistful longing for an ideal.

Lin Yutang

This simple acknowledgement of our human condition says it all. The statement also sums up a mood that dominates my consciousness on a reoccurring basis. When I think of my ideals I want to sink into oblivion because, alas!, I am so far from achieving them.

At least that is the way it seems. What are my ideals anyways? And why do my old, habitual plans of action fail to translate those dreams into reality?

I am writer. My ideal is to write without inhibition. My ideal is productive creativity. My ideal is to write for an audience. My ideal is to write for people who understand and appreciate my work. But most of all my ideal is to be a productive writer.

To write frequently.

In the past I have approached this ideal by disciplining myself. Getting up early in the morning and writing. But the very structure I impose on myself seems to undermine my efforts. I am a disciplined person to begin with and so this strategy of discipline does not work well for me. Perhaps the very notion of a strategy is counterproductive.

We cannot schedule the fountain of creativity. We can only bid our time until the ground beneath us quakes and the subterranean juices bubble up.

I am learning to align myself. There is an undercurrent that I must abide to. The invisible. The intangible.

I am not talking about voluntary attention but involuntary attention. The rational/conscious mind forces itself to concentrate on a task. The "irrational" or childlike mind concentrates effortlessly. Look at children playing in their imaginary worlds with their toys. They are totally absorbed. That is how I want to be with my creative work. Like a child.

I do not wish to exert effort if it is not necessary. I believe I am entering a new phase of my writing life. And it shows in how I conduct myself on my days off.

In the past, in order to achieve my ideal of productive creativity, I have dedicated the early morning to writing. My purpose behind this was completely rational. The early morning is the best time for higher-level functions of the brain. In addition, I thought that if my purpose is to become a writer than I should do this activity first thing. It should be my priority.

But along this path I have come up against many challenges. In the morning I do not have the motivation to work on my writing. Writing feels like a chore in the morning. There is the elusive gap between my longing to be creatively productive and the physical act of sitting before a computer screen. The moment to work is here--now what?

I realize that the muse is a capricious lover. She must be wooed at night.

I read Lin Yutang's description of the human being as a scamp. Listen how he characterizes the human: "a playful curiosity, a capacity for dreams, a sense of humor to correct those dreams, and finally a certain waywardness and incalculability of behavior."

Well, this description explains why I have been at odds with myself for so long. Why I long for my ideal while simultaneously brooding in my inability to fully harness my creative powers through a regiment of self discipline.

Before I was also a Buddhist. I meditated twice daily for five years--but, I digress.

I am trying to show you how my longing for my ideal hasn't changed. I still long to be creative and productive but I realize something about myself and the human mind. Lin Yutang is my mouthpiece:

"The human mind is charming in its unreasonableness, its inveterate prejudices, and its waywardness and unpredictability."

He believes that it is not rationality which makes us most human but irrationality:

"I should hate to see a world in which we are all perfectly rational beings."

Therefore, it is the very acknowledgement of my waywardness, my irrationality, that allows me to understand and transcend my waywardness, my irrationality.

This is how to harness the supremely wayward creative spirit. It is a daunting task. Many give up along the way. Too elusive. Too subtle.

But those who harness the spirit become like children playing in their imaginary worlds. Without expending the least amount of effort. No thinking. Just playing.

This is not only true of the artist I wish to become. But of the person also. Like a child fumbling in the world, curiously fumbling.

And so we can become more in touch with our own true nature, allowing the irrational. On my day off I no longer structure things. I don't meditate anymore. I don't exercise. I don't force myself to do any-thing, including writing. I am more of a Taoist than a Buddhist.

My creative spirit craves life, surprises, mysteries. In the true tradition of the scamp, I wander. I am peripatetic. I go into coffee shops and read for awhile from the Book Review. Why? Because it makes me happy. I am enjoying my life. Opening and closing my wings, in sheer delight. I fall asleep. I wake up. I go for a bite to eat. I go to the library. I read there. I write. The writing comes out of me. As water comes out of a deep well in the ground. No drilling. All natural. I write. And I am more productive and creative than I have ever been.

The writer is a catcher of dreams. It is a sensitive business, catching dreams. Once you design a system or a formula to catch dreams, you fail. Because dreams are like butterflies. They will not be lured into man-made nets unless you are capable of becoming a butterfly yourself.

And then I think of my project, The Novel of Life, and I think of my investigation of my alter ego, Lethe Bashar, and how Lethe is the archetypal Scamp.

Lethe is acting unconsciously. He is acting out human nature without knowing it. Lethe is animal creativity. Wanton imagination. I cannot approach this project as I've done in the past. I must become a scamp--like Lethe.

Except this time I will become conscious of my creation.
Able to understand him and me.
Able to understand this irrational urge
To wander mentally and physically.
Thus I will not fight against my true nature. I will follow the ebb and flow of unpredictability, this waywardness no one can control . . .

Lin Yutang "On Dreams"

Mr. Lin Yutang continues to amaze me. Here are some quotes from his book, The Importance of Living, in the chapter, "On Dreams."

"Perhaps all philosophy began with a sense of boredom. Anyway it is characteristic of humans to have a sad, vague and wistful longing for an ideal."

"The private dreams of being a corporal, the corporal dreams of being a captain, and the captain dreams of being a major or colonel."

"The world is therefore pretty much like an a la carte restaurant where everybody thinks the food the next table has ordered is so much more inviting and delicious than his own."

"Everybody wants to be somebody so long as that somebody is not himself."

"The greater the imaginative power of a man, the more perpetually he is dissatisfied."

"On the whole, humanity is as much led astray as led upwards by this capacity for idealism, but human progress without this imaginative gift is itself unthinkable."

"For I think we are constituted like a receiving set for ideas, as radio sets are equipped for receiving music from the air. Some sets with a finer response pick up the finer short waves which are lost to the other sets, and why, of course, that finer, more distant music is all the more precious if only because it is less easily perceivable."

"And so, out in an alley, up in an attic, or down in the barn or lying along the waterside, a child always dreams, and the dreams are real."

"Some of these children's dreams are clearer than others, and they have a force which compel their own realization; on the other hand, with growing age, those less clear dreams are forgotten, and we all live through life trying to tell those dreams of our childhood, and 'sometimes we die ere we find the language'."

"People fight for their dreams as much as they fight for their earthly possessions. And so dreams descend from the world of idle visions and enter the world of reality, and become a real force in our life."

"However vague they are, dreams have a way of concealing themselves and leave us no peace until they are translated into reality, like seeds germinating under ground, sure to sprout in their search for sunlight. Dreams are very real things."

From "On Dreams" in The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang
(bold mine)

NY Times Book Review: "Subdivided We Fall"

Here are some interesting philosophical quotes that describe our modern era. Can you relate?

"We have built a country," Bishop writes, "where everyone can choose neighbors(and church and news shows) most compatible with his or her lifestyle and beliefs. And we are living with the consequences of this segregation by way of life: pockets of like-minded citizens have become so ideologically inbred that we don't know, can't understand, and can barely conceive of 'those people' who live just a few miles away."

Bishop argues that this clustering of like with like accelerated in the tumult of the 1960s when, unmoored from the organizations and traditions that had guided their choices about how to live, Americans grew anxious and disorientated--and reflexively sought comfort in the familiar, cocooning themselves in communities of people like themselves . . .

Does this balkanization matter? Bishop argues convincingly that it does . . .

"Mix company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes."

From "Subdivided We Fall" New York Times Book Review by Scott Stossel

Review of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop with Robert G. Cushing

W.H. Auden

Leap Before You Look

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
And break the by-laws any fool can keep;
It is not the convention but the fear
That has a tendency to disappear.

The worried efforts of the busy heap,
The dirt, the imprecision, and the beer
Produce a few smart wisecracks every year;
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.

The clothes that are considered right to wear
Will not be either sensible or cheap,
So long as we consent to live like sheep
And never mention those who disappear.

Much can be said for social savoir-fairs,
But to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you will have to leap.

A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of saftey has to disappear.

W.H. Auden

(Qtd. in Poems to Live By In Uncertain Times)

Anne Paris on "Immersion"


Rather than focusing on production or performance, focus on having an immersive experience. In other words, if you reach toward accomplishment, you are keeping your experience on an external, evaluative plane. Because you are observing yourself and judging your performance based on external measures, fears of inadequacy or failure are more likely to surface. By switching your focus to internal experience, you are more likely to find a path to your creativity.

Anne Paris, from "Standing at Water's Edge"

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Lin Yutang "On Having a Mind"

As some of you know, my current fascination is with the Chinese philosopher, Lin Yutang. Here are some insights from the chapter, "On Having a Mind", in his book The Importance of Living.

"All novels would be unreadable did we know exactly how the mind of each character was going to work and were we able consequently to predict the exact outcome. The reading of a novel is but the chase of a wayward and unpredictable mind making its incalculable decisions at certain moments, through a maze of evolving circumstances."

"The human mind is charming in its unreasonableness, its inveterate prejudices, and its waywardness and unpredictability."

"My conception of the human brain, as of all animal brains, is that it is like an octopus or a starfish with tentacles, tentacles for feeling the truth and eating it."

"We all labor under the misconception that the true function of the mind is thinking, a misconception that is bound to lead to serious mistakes in philosophy unless we revise our notion of the term 'thinking' itself."

"I prefer to have our mind charmingly unreasonable as it is at present. I should hate to see a world in which we are all perfectly rational beings. Do I distrust scientific progress? No, I distrust sainthood. Am I anti-intellectualistic? Perhaps yes; perhaps no. I am merely in love with life, and being in love with life, I distrust the intellect profoundly."

"But the very charm of biography, its very readability, depends on showing the human side of a great character which is so similar to ours. Every touch of irrational behavior in a biography is a stroke in convincing reality."

"I consider the education of our senses and our emotions rather more important than the eduction of our ideas."

D.W. Winnicott on "Potential Space"

Potential space is infused with primitive creativity, which later extends to all cultural phenomena, such as the areas of play and artistic creativity and appreciation, and of religious feeling, and of dreaming and also of fetishism, lying and stealing, the origin and loss of affectionate feeling, drug addiction, the talisman of obsessional rituals.

D.W. Winnicott, qtd. by Anne Paris (Standing at the Water's Edge)

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Jonathan Lethem on "The Dark Knight"

I began to feel this Batman wears his mask because he fears he's a fake--and the story of his inauthenticity, the possibility of his unmasking, counts for more than any hope he offers of deliverance from evil.

Jonathan Lethem, from "The Art of Darkness"

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Dreams, or Reality?

We use different words to explain things. But there are themes that persist in philosophy and literature. As a writer, I am curious about one theme in particular. It is a theme that haunts my writing and my life. It is a theme that can be found in Shakespeare, Cervantes, Borges, and the Chinese Classics . . . It is the theme of life as a dream. Reading Lin Yutang's magnificent work, The Importance of Living, I am brought to a new level of understanding about the human condition. He explains the dream-reality paradox much better than I can. There is no inherent conflict between the two; from the human point of view, we see conflict where there is none.

I'm talking about our suffering which, at times, feels so real. How can it be a dream? And yet, I pay close attention to my mind, and see how it wavers from one desire to another. This capricious, whimsical quality of the mind reveals the very essence of our dream-being. We perceive one thing with absolute solidity. We cling to it as truth. With only the passage of time to prove to us, that this solidity is not real, just like all the other things that came before and appeared to us as real, which were not.

Lin encourages us to adopt the attitude of comical detachment. He writes, "It is important that man dreams, but perhaps equally important that man can laugh at his own dreams." We can only become philosophers, he says, once we see the inherent comedy in this dream life. There is nothing that is ours, nothing that will stay, including us. Realizing the vanity of existence is the paved road to an understanding of human suffering. What is needed in the end--our antidote, per say--is a good laugh at ourselves and our highest struggles.

I am a victim of the competitive American mindset. To such a degree that I'm not competing with anyone but myself. I compete with myself because I hunger for greatness. And yet all it takes is for me to read a couple poems by Emily Dickinson, or a short story by Tolstoy, to see how far I have to go. In the words of Lin, we are "clever monkeys." He uses a colorful vocabulary to describe the human condition. Because we have minds, we are conceited. Beyond that, he sees something marvelous and liberating in the character of the "scamp". The human being is a scamp, he says.

I think of the character in my novel, my alter ego Lethe Bashar, as a scamp. The scamp has no home. The scamp is rebellious and independent. He wanders to find his food. He philosophizes on his condition. It seems we are all scamps in our own ways. We are truly liberated for not having a home. Neither the realm of the animals, nor the realm of the gods. Once we see the futility of our serious missions in life, the vanity of our self-improvement projects, only then we can embrace this foolish and wise character of ours.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Glenn Ward on "Erving Goffman"

Goffman studied the various institutions that make up social life (e.g. the workplace, high school) from what he called a 'dramaturgical' perspective; mainly concerned with how people act out social roles in particular circumstances, Goffman saw life as essential theatrical. In his book, life is divided into 'on stage' and 'back stage' moments, and people are called 'actors'.

Goffman tended to have no time for 'modernist' questions about whether the self was authentic or not. His only interest was in whether our various performances successfully promote our social survival. Hence the self 'is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, mature, and to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented, and the characteristic issue, the crucial concern, is whether it will be credited or discredited'(page 223). So Goffman writes of the self as a series of facades erected before different audiences. These facades only appear to emanate from some intrinsic self inside the social performer. In fact, the self is an effect, not a cause, of the facade. It is also not something you individually own. It arises from interaction with other actors on the social stage.

Glenn Ward, from Teach Yourself Postmodernism
Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Monday, May 5, 2008

Jose Ortega y Gasset

Take stock of those around you and you will . . . hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundings, which would seem to point to them having ideas on the the matter. But start to analyse those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to this reality. Quite the contrary: through these notions the individual is trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. For life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his "ideas" are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality.

Jose Ortega y Gasset
(qtd. Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death)

Saturday, May 3, 2008


Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.

(qtd. Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis)

Friday, May 2, 2008

Northrope Frye

For constructing any work of art you need some principle of repetition or recurrence: that's what gives you rhythm in music and pattern in painting. A literature, we said, has a lot to do with identifying the human world with the natural world around it, or finding analogies between them. In nature the most obvious repeating or recurring feature is the cycle. The sun travels across the sky into the dark and comes back again; the seasons go from spring to winter and back to spring again; water goes from springs or fountains to the sea and back again in rain. Human life goes from childhood to death and back again in a new birth. A great many primitive stories and myths, then, would like to attach themselves to this cycle which stretches like a backbone through the middle of both human and natural life.

Mythologies are full of young gods or heroes who go through various successful adventures and then are deserted or betrayed and killed, and then come back to life again, suggesting in their story the movement of the sun across the sky into the dark or the progressions of the seasons through winter and spring. Sometimes they're swallowed by a huge sea monster or killed by a boar; or they wander in a strange dark underworld and then fight their way out again . . . Usually there's a female figure in the story.

Northrope Frye, from "The Educated Imagination"

Thursday, May 1, 2008


I know this feeling very well--even now, I have been experiencing it lately: everything seems to be ready for the writing--for fulfilling my earthly duty, what's missing is the urge to believe in myself, the belief in the importance of my task, I'm lacking the energy of delusion; an earthly, spontaneous energy that is impossible to invent. And it's impossible to begin without it.

(qtd. Viktor Shklovsky in The Energy of Delusion)
(bold mine)


All his life, at every moment, he possessed the faculty of seeing phenomena in the detached finality of each separate instant, in perfectly distinct outline, as we see only on rare occasions, in childhood, or on the crest of an all-renewing happiness, or in the triumph of a great spiritual victory.

To see things like that, our eye must be directed by passion. For it is passion that by its flash illuminates an object, intensifying its appearance.

Such passion, the passion of creative contemplation, Tolstoy constantly carried with him. It was precisely in its light that he saw everything in its pristine freshness, in a new way, as if for the first time. The authenticity of what he saw differs so much from what we are used to that it may appear strange to us. But Tolstoy was not seeking that strangeness, was not pursuing it as a goal, still less did he apply it to his works as a literary method.

Pasternak, from People and Situations (1956)
(qtd. by Richard Pevear in the Introduction to War and Peace)
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