Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee Friday, Jun 20 2008 

South Africa is fucked up. Post-apartheid South Africa is fucked up. Just being an Afrikaaner is fucked up in a certain way. This is a land with flamethrowers built into car doors as a defense against hijack; It should be a more alien setting, but as the backdrop of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace it’s unsettlingly familiar.

As an outsider approaching the subject of racial and political violence there is a temptation to distance oneself, as if saying “Oh, how horrible, and over there.” You know, the same way that a lot of Americans think of the South, or the past. Better yet, think of it as watching a Mad Max movie where everything is bizarre and terrible, but come on. Come on. In sum toto we recognize suffering and that suffering is bad, but not so much any responsibility for or desire to share in it (Isn’t this essentially what it means to be American?). Alternately we can try relating these terrors to our own lives, but how to do so without belittling their real circumstances? Can we seek understanding without appropriating? This is the major tension of Disgrace.

David Lurie is an obsolete professor sullenly teaching the too practical too vulgar, subject of communications where during apartheid he taught modern languages and classics. He purchases sex the way other people purchase a sandwich. He’s resigned, going through the motions, he’s not going to bother anyone and doesn’t want anyone to bother him. A ritualist in Robert Merton’s typology of deviance (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strain_theory_%28sociology%29#Robert_King_Merton) Lurie is just serving his time. The problem is that he lives detached from the reality of his position. It’s not surprising that he sleeps with a student, Melanie Isaacs, nor that the student is black, or that he doesn’t see the need to apologize or admit that it was anything other than two consenting adults. Professor Lurie takes the dissociative attitude I talked about above in that he is cognizant of power imbalances but entirely unwilling to recognize it in his own life; even when enters his life in a direct and violent way.

The biggest flaw in the novel is a trope about the inadequacy of language. The book itself is an embodied contradiction to the claim that language is inadequate. Language is powerful and good and completely up to task. Can it let us understand what the situation is like? Perhaps not. But it can certainly describe to us and point out the obstacles to understanding. Frankly, any author (keyword: author) that makes the tired, trite assertion that language is not a capable mode of expression can go fuck themselves.

The world of Disgrace is bleak and accurate. Eventually Lurie comes to some recognition of his misdeeds, but as in the real world learning your lesson is rather meaningless. Lessons don’t undo misery, nor do apologies. I know this is a strange assertion to make in the United States where a little liberal white guilt seems to go a long way toward abdication of responsibility. How many times have you shaken your head at a fundamentalist or a support our troops bumper sticker and thought, “I am not that kind of person, I do not do those kind of things.” How satisfying it must be to a woman desperate and pregnant in a state with one abortion clinic and the corpses of the Middle East that you are a “good person” and that were it up to you everyone would be raised to your level. David Lurie never barred anyone from voting or bound them with a burning tire, yet tacitly he is an oppressor. If there is not value in being sorry then there isn’t any in being right while misery still exists.

The futility is strangely gratifying. Lurie is never redeemed or forgiven through his guilt. He ends up a degraded tangent of his daughter’s trauma, euthanizing wretched dogs and watching their bodies burn. His daughter tells him, poignantly: ” You behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your life. You are the main character, I am a minor character who doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through. Well, contrary to what you think, people are not divided into major and minor. I am not minor. I have a life of my own, just as important as yours is to you, and in my life I am the one who makes the decisions.” This embodies what much of what we can take away from Disgrace. There is more than the West making amends and admitting the wrongs of colonialism. We need to appreciate the fullness and independence of other societies without the expectation of absolution. We need to do things for their own sake, a strongly anti-capitalist notion.

Like energy and matter there is a conservation of misery; it gets moved around, redistributed but never reduced. When Lurie says, “I am sunk into a state of disgrace from which it will not be easy to lift myself. It is not a punishment I have refused. I do not murmur against it. On the contrary, I am living it out from day to day, trying to accept disgrace as my state of being.” he offers a resolution to the tension between relating and detaching, simultaneous excursions into both extremes. In this way we recognize the pain of others without using it as our own, we understand without pretending we are noble for doing so. The same doubled for our own pain.

“Trying to accept disgrace as my state of being.” A perfect maxim for the postcolonial West, and anyone really. If we can be silent collaborators to the suffering of others there must be be a way to be a silent ally to their happiness. In the silence, the disgrace-like acceptance, is the region where real connections are possible. Kant framed it as considering every person as an end to themselves, but tainted it with the reward of being considered “moral” for doing so. In the realm of the personal: to notice others, to remember that people are not major or minor, to accept disgrace as our state of being, and to be a silent ally.

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Wheatley Contra Winthrop Monday, May 19 2008 

En route to what would become Massachusetts John Winthrop laid out his vision for the new society in a sermon called A Model of Christian Charity. He lays out codes of behaviour and ethics for the emergent community and says that it should be, “as a city upon a hill.” (Winthrop) Here Winthrop is referring to Matthew 5:14 in which the Christian community is set apart to function as an example to the entire world, and in so doing he suggests that this group of puritans should endeavour to establish their colony as a guiding utopia. Then Winthrop explains what a successful and what a failing City on a Hill will look like, and in so doing inadvertently undermines the rest of his vision.

The condition of failure for Winthrop is such: “if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other gods, our pleasures and profits, and serve them… we shall surely perish out of the good land.” (Winthrop) Conversely, in a successful City on a Hill Winthrop writes, “ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemy.” (Winthrop) Winthrop believes so fully in an interventionist god that he places all evaluative measures of his new society in its material survival and success. He does not imagine a mechanism by which the community can examine and change itself from within, and for him this is not necessary for surely should they fail morally then God would not allow them to thrive. As a result, physical conditions in the new community become the barometer for moral ones and no procedure for self-evaluation and improvement is adopted; these are the critical oversights that tilt the City on a Hill concept into the abyss of failure. (It is important to note that the failure implied is one of concept rather than substance, because the new colony did indeed become a prosperous new land to which many in the world would look to for starting anew) The society where individual worth is measured by material demonstration (as it was in Puritan culture through “signs”) creates marginalized populations who suffer the stress of being labeled inferior or wrong for conditions beyond their control.

Slaves are a prime example of such a marginalized population. Blacks were said to be descendants of Ham, and therefore condemned to slavery by god through Noah (Gen 9:25). Much of the argument that blacks were inferior was predicated on the condition of African civilization, a stance which seems to mirror the logic of Winthrop, but in a negative sense. At the time it could have been argued that if slaves were intended to be free and reap the bounty of New England then God would provide them the means by which to raise themselves up. Alternately, it was argued that slavery is that means in as much as it gave blacks access to knowledge of Christ and thrall to whites was either of little consequence due to the fact that bodily suffering was regarded as temporary and acceptable to gain salvation or slavery was an improvement to barbarism and apostasy in Africa (Saffin). For Puritan society on the one hand the trappings of this world are transitory and pale when compared to the bounty of the divine so we shouldn’t revel in them, but on the other hand, they are so important that they define if we are a success or failure, damned or saved, slave or free. We find parallels in Winthrop when he says at first that for Christians worldly possessions and status matter so little compared to status with God that we should give freely of ourselves to help our fellow man, and then in the same turn that as a community our worldly status matters so much that it demonstrates how God feels about the group.

A lonely voice of contradiction comes in the pen of Phyllis Wheatley, a slave and poet. In her poems Wheatley describes the disconnect between the suffering of slaves and the freedom of Christians when the two are joined in a single individual. The poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” is especially informative of her arguments. The text of the poem is as follows:

“’Twas mercy that brought me from my Pagan land,/ Taught my benighted soul to understand/ That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:/ Once I redemption neither sought now knew./ Some view out fable race with scornful eye,/ ‘Their colour is a diabolic die,’/ Remember Christians, Negros, black as Cain,/ May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.”

Wheatley’s poem can be read as an attempt to highlight the imbalance between her moral/spiritual freedom as a converted Christian and her material oppression as a slave. The first line of the poem, “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,” (Wheatley) can be taken to refer to the land of the unconverted soul rather than literal land. The word mercy is particularly telling because it guides the reader to think in a context of religious language. Also note that italics are placed on the words Pagan, Saviour, Christians, Negros, and Cain further implying the religious subject matter and that the blackness and ignorance in the context of the poem is spiritual instead of racial. The Christian notion of mercy had elevated Wheatley to a religious status equal to whites. There is something missing, however, and in the final two lines of the poem Wheatley nudges the reader to fill in the blank, “Remember Christians, Negros, black as Cain,/ May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.” (Wheatley) If blacks, through salvation, “May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.” along with whites then why can’t they be raised to the level of whites on the mortal plane? The poem seems to be telling the reader that while he or she sees and hears of Africa as a savage place because the physical conditions in which its people live that the souls and the people of Africa are equal but for want of freedom and opportunity. Wheatley’s poems and Wheatley herself help whites break out of the cyclical argument that Africans have been enslaved because they are inferior and they are inferior because they have been enslaved. If she had ever judged herself in the terms of whites and of Winthrop would she even have bothered trying to pray or write?

Gordon Carter does or does not receive his first kiss Monday, May 19 2008 

I am Gordon Carter, a teenager, and I have been drinking for about an hour. I elected to skip the final class of the day, Physical Education, and instead sit by the dumpster behind the theatre with a bottle. I hesitate to say that it was typical teenage rebellious behavior, if only because no one else is around to see it. All day I have been in an intolerable mood and I am just so tired. For some reason there is an old mattress behind the blue dumpster, so I sit on it smoking Parliament cigarettes and taking timid sips. The mattress is soaked and water creeps into the seat of my pants. I do not get up.

At the end of that lonely hour it is time to walk home. I put on the heavy coat then break the bottle on the ground and step on the pieces. The waning daylight makes the dirty snow on the ground look blood orange. I hate this kind of cold, it intrudes everywhere. It goes up your nostrils and the warmth inside your ears pulses like a slap in the face. I watch my lonely feet as they march on the sidewalk. My dumb combat boots have long shit-looking smears on their steel toes; it’s from the sand the city puts in the streets when it snows. Cars drive through the sand and splatter it onto the sidewalks. Most cities use salt, but this one uses sand. Salt apparently corrodes cars or something; it’s better just to make everything dirty I guess. I don’t really know a lot about traction or snow; this is the first city I have ever been to where it snows. Where I come from the only thing they put on the roads is new asphalt.

I have been walking for what seems like a long time but when I see the sign for Chesterfield Lane I know I’ve only gone about two blocks, maybe two and a half. I take a seat on the curb because I’m tired. Maybe if I wasn’t always skipping gym I’d be able to walk more than two blocks without having to catch my breath. Maybe if I didn’t smoke so many damn cigarettes– light a Parliament and examine the tip. I love the way a cigarette glows, the way I imagine coal burning in the furnace of an old steam boat must have glowed.

A year ago, back in Austin, my friend Ken had a pack of Japanese cigarettes with charcoal in them. That was really something if you ask me. We shared a pack on his front lawn; even though his parents were cool we always smoked outside because I think it’s primitive to be lighting fires indoors in this time period. People here are allowed to smoke in the fucking supermarket because there is this stupid zoning law that lets people smoke in casinos. Apparently the Indians threatened to sue when the city voted to ban smoking in restaurants, but when they changed the law to exempt casinos the definition of casino included businesses with lottery machines. Anyway, Ken’s mom was always going back to Hong Kong and she would buy him foreign cigarettes from duty free.

“Ken,” I said, “it’s fucked up that your mom buys you cartons of cigarettes.”

“In China kids start smoking in elementary school. It’s like France and wine.’

“Bullshit.” I said

“It’s not bullshit, it’s my culture you racist. All the kids and the teacher light up and read the Little Red book in a big cloud of smoke. It symbolizes the problems with industrialization, and the government makes them do it to solve the population problem.”

“Fuck you, Ken.” I said, “All I am saying is that I think it’s weird that your mom buys you cigarettes.”

“Well,” he replied, “you can’t possibly object that much, can you?” He pointed at my cigarette.

“You’ve got me there. I just love these things.”

Ken always was a great debater. I imagine one day he will go back to China when they get Hong Kong back and be a member of the fucking Politburo or something. A few months ago he sent me a whole box of those Japanese cigarettes, and I have been saving the last one; transferring it from pack to pack for when I really need it. I miss Ken. If this place were a steamboat Ken and I’d be working the furnace chatting it up.

Lately I never put out my cigarettes when I finish them because I love to watch the embers explode when the butt hits the ground. When I let this one go an old blue Chevrolet hops the curb scraping its right fender against the Chesterfield Lane sign. “Shit!” I think and run over to the passenger door to see if whoever’s in the car is okay. I look through the window to see a girl about my age, probably in my year, leaning across the front seat struggling to open the passenger window. Of course this car has those old crank windows and she’s restrained by her seatbelt, but with her arms fully extended she manages to get it down about half way. I am waiting for her to say something, I am waiting for her to cry “Help!” and spit out a mouthful of blood.

“Hey!” She says, “Do you need a ride?”

What? Are you kidding me?

I ask, “Are you okay?”

She looks confused, “Uh, yeah. Do you need a ride?”

Do I want a ride from a stranger who crashes her giant boat car into signs and for all I know kidnaps people off the street and dances in their entrails to the tune of “It’s Rainin’ Men”? My ear throbs, and although in another block I’d be able to see the intersection where my street crosses this one, I do apparently want a ride from such a person. I’m tired, out of breath and I’ve never really thought very much of my entrails anyway.

“Sure, um thanks,” I say.

She looks friendly enough, and I’m the rough and tumble customer with a wet ass and shit boots who’s going to mess up this person’s car—I scrape the dirt from my boots on to the curb before getting in.

“I’m Sarah,” she says

“Gordon. How do you do.”

“Oh, I’m fine,” she says, “just glad to be done with class right?”

I make the sound people everywhere make when they go to push their floor in an elevator and see the number already lit up. The people around here with their American yacht-cars and smoking in the supermarket drive me nuts. How do you do is not a question. You know what; I shouldn’t be such a dick. She’s giving me a ride.

I say, “Yeah, I can’t wait to get home. Thanks again for the ride.”

I buckle my seatbelt because, even though I’m probably gonna get cancer at 22, I’m not an idiot. I remember seeing the pope on TV driving around in his bullet proof pope car standing up in the glass bubble part with no seatbelt, the crazy bastard.

Sarah looks over her shoulder waiting for a chance to merge back into traffic from the curb and I look directly at her for the first time. She has red hair kept back with either a clip or elastic band, I can’t tell which. If were a woman I would want to have soft red hair like that. I don’t know if I would keep it back. I would probably wear it shorter because that’s the sort of look I like. Someone, a real standup chap, stops and lets her back into traffic and we start off down the street.

“I saw you sitting there and I thought about how cold it is and how it must suck to have to walk,” she says

“Oh, it’s not really that far for me. Make a right at the right up there.” I say.

As we drive up my street the warm air from the heater blows softly on my face and it makes me tired.

“Thanks, this is close enough,” I said when we were still pretty far, “I can walk from here.”

I unbuckled my seatbelt, turned and opened the door. Then something weird happened: I felt a small puff of air on my cheek only softer and less warm than the heater. As I rose from the car I think I felt something brush across my face. Sarah smiled and waved while making a U-turn and driving away. I waved back weakly. What had just happened? Did she just kiss me? Why? I’ll tell you why, it was some kind of hit job kiss-the-loser dare between her and her giggling friends. Or maybe she’s some kind of sexual predator, picking up strangers and kissing them before dropping them out in the cold. Dud it even really happen? She would’ve had to have unbuckled her seatbelt; she couldn’t even lean far enough to open the window in that damn car. I don’t remember her doing that. She could’ve unbuckled it when I yawned. Oh my god she was driving without a seatbelt. I have to run, catch up with her car, and make her buckle up before she splatters herself like the pope in his stupid fishbowl. Wait, I think I saw her wearing it when she waived. Shit, I can’t remember. Shit. If she kissed me I probably liked it, but if she wasn’t buckled up that is just fucked. That’s like smoking inside, in the grocery store—I open my box of Parliaments and take out that last cigarette from Ken that I’ve been saving. The charcoal flavor is smooth and smoky, but on a night like this– I don’t think throwing any amount of coal in the furnace is going to do the trick. I cannot remember a moment where I have felt so unreconciled with myself. It’s so hard to have reasonable expectations and dizziness at once. What did I expect? No one else could unravel the tapestry of my lonely nightmare by becoming tangled in its weave, or by guiding me to tango steps that would pull so strong the fraying threads stuck to my shoes. Yet I was so disappointed in those next days when my coal-burned eyes didn’t see any red strands stray or ships come in. Disappointed until I resigned down to looking again at sludgy sidewalks, dirty boots, and hanging threads.

The Prejudice of Philosophers Monday, May 19 2008 

An important element of Nietzsche’s philosophy as put forward in his Beyond Good and Evil is his critical eye on the philosophy of the past. He makes the point that previous philosophers while claiming to express an objective truth merely stated their preference: “although they all make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely” (§sec 4) His problem is that philosophers select their conclusions before examining any evidence about the world. Descartes is a perfect example of this behavior. In Meditations Descartes knows that he will eventually conclude that God exists no matter where his methodological skepticism would lead him. To take up arms against this history of fallacious, deceptive thinking Nietzsche adopts a unique style and continues his criticisms against the philosophical tradition.

Do not be mistaken, Nietzsche himself has his own favorite truths for which in Beyond Good and Evil he advocates most rigorously. His system of judgment values philosophies differently: “We do not object to a judgment just because it is false… The question is rather to what extent the judgment furthers life, preserves life” (sec. 4) after all, the great bulk of science is a border of falsehoods that must be reshaped around different possibilities. If he does not object to the falsity it seems a contradiction to his above position. (We will find a great deal of contradictions when dealing with Nietzsche) What is so problematic is the method of arriving at that falsehood and the fact that it is forwarded as truth. How then should one express some notion? Nietzsche’s answer is to merely state one’s position so that is may be evaluated, advocated, or broken. His method for this new style of advocacy is reflected in his chapter of epigrams. These contentions are terse, bold statements which convey a thought with little to nothing devoted to examples or logical arguments. An example that reflects a theme he later develops with some depth: “There is no such thing as moral phenomenona, but only moral interpretation of phenomenona…” (Sec, 108 ) This sort of statement is what Nietzsche believes should be enough for us as an audience. It is a position, bold and to judged on its value rather than meaningless formalism. So then, how is that we can dismantle, or cast doubt upon a statement so atomic other than to simply forward our own disagreement?

For one thing we can ridicule a position. In his criticism of nationalism Nietzsche uses this method with great aplomb. “The most unambiguous signs suggest that Europe wants to be one.” (sec. 256) he says and goes on to point out that in the work of Richard Wagner, a figure whose art was considered to embody the national differences among Europeans, actually shows traits that would be considered most “un-German” by nationalist thinkers. He engages in parody of Wagner’s work to make his point: “—Can this be German? / This fevered shrieking from a German heart? / A German body rends itself apart? /…This nun’s eye-rolling, Ave-churchbell chiming/ The fake-ecstatic pious rhyming?” (sec. 256) If we laugh, if we can see the humor we can therefore see what is humorous about the idea that such art can be considered to have this national characteristic or another. Truly Nietzsche is trying to make “life furthering” assertions and criticisms. To use laughter and one-liners would be unthinkable to most philosophers, but that devotion to mundane language, inane arguments is what makes Nietzsche’s ideas so freeing.

“Convincing” Love Stories Monday, May 19 2008 

It has been said (Vanity Fair) that Lolita is, “the only convincing love story of our [the 20th] century.” Something ought to be done, not because there is anything wrong with Lolita (far from it), but because everything deserves peers. One might say the 20th century is over, true but its products (us) and its precepts remain yet to be replaced with new bodies or new ideas. Intellectually and biologically we live in the realm of Hitler and The Red Menace. Do we, the last gasp of fertility from a fading era have anything to say before our tired bones crumble and our tired mouths shut themselves forever. There is time for one last convincing idea. What should it be?

Alcohol Monday, May 19 2008 

I’ve long believed that alcoholism was more severe, more pandemic during 18th and 19th centuries in “beer countries” such as England, Germany, and the Netherlands than in “wine countries” like France and Italy. The mass production of hard liquors like gin, whiskey, and all those other types of whiskey that are supposed to be different than whiskey combined with urban life is why I think alcoholism became what it did at that time. But why I’m more severe for the beer? I always chalked it up to cultural differences in the way that pre-industrial “soft liquors” were consumed, beer as a drink for the sake of itself and wine usually as part of a meal or event . So, when hard alcohol is introduced in abundance the one group is more likely to drink it frequently, independent of cause, and the other not. Make sense, right? Excellent material for my prejudice against masculine/populist icons like blue jeans and beer.

But today I was reading the wikipedia article about gin and I saw something interesting to add to the theory. Apparently gin was often made from crops grown for beer that failed certain quality standards. The implications are obvious and adds an economic dimension. I could now argue that with the introduction of grain based alcohols the beer countries produced an abundance of hard liquor as a profitable by-product of the brewing process. Throw in means of production and some other Marxist hoo-hah and you are well on your way to a credible piece of historical sociology. I could research this, see if I am right, do up what in the big-city college world we call a “paper” but that is something I will not do.

I feel the social sciences and the natural sciences for that matter suffer from what Nietzsche criticized philosophers for in Beyond Good and Evil: “Collectively they take up a position as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cool, pure, god-like disinterested dialectic… basically they defend with reasons sought out after the fact an assumed principle” Meaning that these sort of ideas don’t arise out of an examination of the world, but does pretend to. The scientific method essentially amounts to picking your favourite idea and then trying to shoehorn in some evidence around it rather than looking objectively at events and then drawing some conclusion. That’s why I love literature, because there is a greater emphasis on hypothesis, on simple claim making. Sure, there is that boorish bit about backing up what you say about a book with examples from the text that I have always hated. If the author is allowed to simply state an idea about the world I have never understood why the student or the critic cannot do the same about a book. Or for that matter why we can’t do the same about chemical reactions, or crime, or whatever.

The best book about alcoholism and the period I described that I’ve read is, ironically, a French novel: Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir (apparently untranslatable but the copy I had was called The Drinking Den, and others might be called The Dram Shop or just use the French title.)

The Little Lunch Monday, May 19 2008 

The combination of lemon juice and chili oil tasted remarkably like muted ginger. It’s an interesting choice for chicken sandwiches, tasty yes but it makes me regret bringing the lemonade. As a woman in her fifties I’m supposed drink wine, always wine. I just don’t know anything about viticulture and I didn’t want to look stupid. This is worse. I thought it would make things more casual, less intense, and now I look like a child.

I wish my father had turned into one of those jovial, chubby bald men like so many fathers did, but he had to be one of those dignified types with a silver beard and a resemblance to Ernest Hemmingway. Now, whenever I go on a date it is at least a little creepy, since I am not into chubby bald men. How are you supposed to respond to a strange man that looks straight at you and completely serious says, “I think you should have lunch with me.”

You say no, Camilla. Or you meet him at a restaurant, you don’t agree to let him cook for you and eat in his garden. It is a nice garden though, talk about that.
“Those are nice tulips. I didn’t know that you could grow them here.”
“Oh,” he says, “you’re not supposed to be able to, but I have a secret.”
“And what’s that?” I ask.
“Well, tulips usually only grow in places where the ground freezes, so I dig them up and put them in the freezer and then replant them. This is my favorite time of year, when the tulips really start to grow.”
“I’ve always been more of a fall type.”
“Really? But fall is always so gray and boring here. Did you grow up somewhere else?”
“When I was in school for some reason I thought you had to capitalize the seasons like you do the days of the week, you know? So I would always be writing Sspring, Ssummer, Ffall, and Wwinter. Eventually I even started to say them that way! People would tease me, asking what I did for sspring break or ssummer vacation.”
“What about winter?”
“Wwinter made it sound like I had a stutter, but ffall nobody really noticed, the f just sounds a little drawn out.”
“I see,” he says.

A huge, fuzzy bee lands on the palm of his hand. He looks down and slowly closes his fingers around it. When he opens them the bee flies away apparently without having stung him. I look at the clean white spot on his palm that should be swollen and red. This man—this is a very lonely man

Rock, Paper, Scissors Monday, May 19 2008 

She sees him standing by the building entrance like she has seen him standing so many times before. He is usually smoking cigarettes but this time he is not. She walks by as if to enter, stops, turns as if remembering something, and asks, “Can I borro–bother you for a cigarette?”
“Uh, sure,” he says. He rummages through his things for a moment before producing the pack. She sees that it contains only one lonely Camel.
“Oh, I can’t take your last one,” she says.
“No, it’s fine, I was going to get some more in a minute anyway.”
“I really can’t. I’ll ask someone else.”
“There’s no one else out here, it’s really okay. Take it.” He extends the hand holding the pack closer to her, making his offering.
“I’ll tell you what,” she says, “I’ll rock, paper, scissors you for it.”
“You can just have it. I don’t want it, honest.”
“Come on, only one round, not best two out of three or anything,” she nervously tries to challenge him, “I’ll probably beat you anyway. I’m great at rock, paper, scissors.”
“Just take it,” he says.
She looks at him plaintively and asks plaintively, “Please?”
“No.”

She takes the cigarette from the box being careful not to touch his hand as she is to almost touch it. In her hand the fire is dancing from the wind, going out again and again. She shakes the lighter with her fist and thinks to herself “Rock, paper, scissors. Rock, paper, scissors.” She tries again and manages to get it lit. She thanks him and sits down on the edge of a planter behind where he is standing. She looks at the back of his head, then his hands. She imagines their hands pumping up and down in unison then she takes the cigarette between her index and middle fingers and puts it to her mouth. She imagines her mouth moving as she talks to him. She imagines his mouth moving as it talks to her. She imagines it saying no.

Hyperforms Monday, May 19 2008 

I rely too much on summary when writing. The first rule of good writing is show, don’t tell, but I love to tell, I am dying to tell. Summary is where the magic happens. It has a way of distancing the reader from the action in the same way that the character is distanced from his/her life (if only in that I am making the decisions for them).

Pre-Marxist German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach posited that gods are an anthropological reflection of the society that creates them. He examined Hegel’s (probably the most current and authoritative at the time) conception of the Christian god. God through Hegel is a completely ideal form and history acts itself out as his separate will. Imagine the flow of a river and imagine the fish may swim in anyway they desire, yet in sum toto they contribute foremost to the flow of the river no matter their will. They act as sites of resistance or enabling for the inevitable current. To Feuerbach the god of Hegel is pregnant with its opposite (atheism, mechanism) because the Hegelian god is completely ideal he has no presence in this world and it operates on independent principles. Reflecting back on the society of the time we can easily see how the change of operant principles emerges in this concept. Countries could be governed by a high will, represented usually by a constitution or monarch, wherein the citizens were free to do this or that work and support this or that cause so long as it was within the confines of the path set out by the high will. Nationalist power or freedom, for example.

Feuerbach’s gods are hyperforms of different human concepts, useful and interesting. It’s easy to understand this idea of hyperform (my term) by examining the Greek gods of old. Each is a particular aspect of life (both in general and specific to that time) given personae to represent that aspect. The genius in this is the often arbitrary and emotional nature of these personae. As science progressed gods had to become more consistent, more perfect because the attributes they represented became full of laws. Gravity, for example, was found to behave as gravity must behave. Therefore a god of gravity could no longer allow temper or fancy rule his projection of gravity into the world. So the perfect Christian/Muslim god arises, who can exist singularly and manage the puzzle pieces of the world without nuance and inconsistency. His hydrogens will always have one proton and his monsters are created in the mutable hearts of men.

The problem with this lies in separating the society of men from the hyperforms of the natural world. Society and our psychologies are in a constant sort of flux that colors events as we see them. The events of a life are imperfect and random because they are the manifestation of a horrid mixture consisting of work, emotion, place, time, and coincidence. Yet physical processes such as chemical reactions are viewed only as consistent, rule-bound. So there’s a disconnect between the perfect hyperform of god (all of this applies to atheism as well because to mechanists the universe will operate on similarly rigid and unassailable scientific principles whether or not they are the result of a god) and the anarchic nature of life and society.

As a result of the sciences the old gods lost their utility as descriptors for the universe, but that was not their only purpose. The Greek pantheon had interactions among themselves and among people rather than apart from them. They, and other gods of the sort, remain useful as literary objects. I can think of no better hyperform for modern sexuality, for example, than Poseidon. He exists in the fertile, yet mysterious realm of the sea procreating all manner of dark and tentacled monsters (We can easily recognize AIDS in this way, tentacles substituting for those troublesome, destructive strings of RNA). He draws men away from their homes and into his bounty with the promise of a better life. And so on.

Tying this back to writing I think it can be helpful, at least for self-reflection, to think of myself as a hyperform of my own psychology. The universe in which my characters operate is after all one created by my own conception of the world. Fiction takes a particular kind of narcissism to produce (and memory a very common kind) anyway so why not? Usually the purpose of fictions is transmission of that psychology rather than self-reflection (masturbation?), but I am not as old as real writers, transmitters, so I do not know myself as well. Besides that I am really the only one reading. So I notice this summary, this distance from life and I can see it in my own life. I imagine being born again as an iron-plated chess king, capable in many ways but weighted down with armour. It’s 30 moves to make it a draw, can I make that many hops, and hopes before I lose it all?