Day 298: Jesse Ball

We labor under tyrants. Sometimes we become tyrants ourselves. At present things look pretty grim. Some people like to look at the horrors of past centuries in order to paint a rosy picture of things today, but insofar as it is now possible for us to do better, and we are not doing better, things are quite bad. There is so much violence in the modern climate of reduced accountability—actions taken by millions of people simultaneously and trivially—that a different morality is needed in order for people to proceed in their day-to-day lives. If we ever needed Christian morality, and the answer to that is, I think that we never did (people could always be kind, whether Christian or no), then we do not need it now. People behaving generously in order to get a good deal later on in heaven is rather laughable, even if it is a swindle (no heaven). Why not instead behave to reduce the suffering of other living things without any reward but the life thus lived? And why not stop believing man is the center of the universe? That’s a small beginning.

Jesse Ball is author of the just-published The Divers' Game. His take is gloomy, but not off the mark.

Day 182: Excavation

How strange to see that I don't want to be the person that I want to be.

— Amanda Palmer

That stark moment when you realize there is no making art until you square up to who you are, and square up to not knowing who you are, and then square up to the task of excavating—from layer after layer of pretense, anxiety, distaste, outright fear, education, indoctrination, expectations of family and society and management and tribe, market pressures and the lure of cashing in and then cashing out, politeness, niceness, laziness, and useless advice—your true self. And that stark moment when you understand that you will have to accept whatever you find to be your true self. And that stark moment when you take a step and start something that will be hard to quit. And then that stark moment when you see clearly that you are so in over your head. And finally, that stark moment when you say, Fuck it, I'm making this thing anyway because while you can't see what I'm about to do or how I'm going to do it, I can.

Day 181: Terrific Teffi

I’ve just finished Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi. Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya was born in St. Petersburg in 1872 and became a writer of note in pre-revolution Russia, writing as Teffi. She was a satirist who fled for Paris when the Russian Revolution turned bad for writers of barbed, skeptical commentary. Along the way she met Rasputin and Tolstoy and Lenin and a fascinating array of intellectuals and writers and artists. New York Review Books has issued two collections of her work; the other is titled Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea.

Her acute intelligence, sly rejection of bullshit whatever the source, and dexterity with language make her one of those writers I want to read regardless of her subject. On the Bolsheviks:

Those Bolsheviks in the Smolny are a crafty lot. They’ve decreed that every woman under forty must report for snow-shoveling duty. What woman is fool enough to tell the whole world she’s over forty? So far, not a single one has owned up. Instead, they’ve all been throwing themselves into the fray.

Bits of conversation:

And I was reminded of a sweet lady from Petersburg who said of a friend, “There’s nothing this woman won’t stoop to if she thinks she’ll gain by it. You can take my word for it—I’m her best friend.

This utterly superb description:

The end of a Petersburg winter. Neurasthenia.

Rather than starting a new day, morning merely continues the grey, long-draw-out evening of the day before.

Through the plate glass of the large bay window I can see out onto the street, where a warrant officer is teaching new recruits to poke bayonets into a scarecrow. The recruits have grey, damp-chilled faces. A despondent-looking woman with a sck stops and stares at them.

No improving that.

Day 180: Marriage of convenience

Diane Ackerman:

Deep down, we know our devotion to reality is just a marriage of convenience, and we leave it to the seers, the shamans, the ascetics, the religious teachers, the artists among us to reach a higher state of awareness, from which they transcend our rigorous but routinely analyzing senses and become closer to the raw experience of nature that pours into the unconscious, the world of dreams, the source of myth.

… The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day. Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length. It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.

Day 176: Brian Eno

I am not at all comfortable with how right this is. Brian Eno, from about five years ago:

Most of the smart people I know want nothing to do with politics. We avoid it like the plague… Is this because we feel that politics isn’t where anything significant happens? Or because we’re too taken up with what we’re doing, be it Quantum Physics or Statistical Ge-nomics or Generative Music? Or because we’re too polite to get into arguments with people? Or because we just think that things will work out fine if we let them be—that The Invisible Hand or The Technosphere will mysteriously sort them out?

Whatever the reasons for our quiescence, politics is still being done—just not by us. It’s politics that gave us Iraq and Afghanistan and a few hundred thousand casualties. It’s politics that’s bleeding the poorer nations for the debts of their former dictators. It’s politics that allows special interests to run the country. It’s politics that helped the banks wreck the economy. It’s politics that prohibits gay marriage and stem cell research but nurtures Gaza and Guantanamo.

But we don’t do politics. We expect other people to do it for us, and grumble when they get it wrong. We feel that our responsibility stops at the ballot box, if we even get that far. After that we’re as laissez-faire as we can get away with.

What worries me is that while we’re laissez-ing, someone else is faire-ing.

Day 173: The Language Forest

My favorite image for language itself is a great forest: it’s a living thing, and it’s bigger than we are, and we’re born into the middle of it and we gradually get to know more and more about it as we grow ourselves. It provides us with shelter and food and pleasure. (The forest is the phase space of all we can possibly say.) But parts of it are being burned down, and other parts are struggling to find light and nourishment, and the terrible thing is now we’re conscious, the nature of the forest itself has changed. … We can’t pretend to be innocent in the face of language, any more than in the face of knowledge of any sort: we are conscious, and so we are responsible. Whether we like it or not, the forest of language is not wild virgin forest any more; it’s being managed, and some of it is being managed badly. And we’re responsible, we the story people, the poetry people, the book people. In our parts of the forest, we are in charge.

Philip Pullman, Dæmon Voices