philosophy

The Reasons We Write – Yet Another Take

Writer at a Typewriter

I’ve mused in many articles about the reasons anyone would do something as completely barking mad as writing… and I’m not the only one.  Analysis of the writerly life can be delightfully variable, as witnessed by the fat that everyone has a different take.  Isaac Asimov used to consider writers as a species of supermen, an activity not everyone was cut out for.  He even had fun with it, saying (and I paraphrase from memory) that if, as was extremely likely, you couldn’t make it as a writer, you could be president of the United States (this was written back in the era when that was probably the world’s most respected job).

A more modern take on writing would be more like “O woe, writing sucks” (and then the person who wrote that profound thought goes on to whine about how they never get anything published).

My own take is somewhere along the middle path.  While I accept that writing can be a grind, it also brings about great rewards.  There are few feelings comparable to holding a book that contains something you wrote in it, if it’s there on merit (I have no clue how vanity publishing or self-publishing feels, as I’ve not really had experience there – for all I know, it’s awesome).  The daily grind of rejection, on the other hand, is a very effective counterweight.

In my own case, the balance falls on the side of “keep writing”, so that’s what I do… but I often wonder if there isn’t another component: hope of immortality.

Before I look into the immortality game when it comes to writing, I wanted to say that I, personally, believe that all art is motivated, at least a little bit, by that dream of being remembered after you’re gone.  Whether it be a commercially successful film director making a film to cement his critical reputation as opposed to raking in the dollars at the box office or a small child giving you a drawing (and crying if you happen to lay it on a table for a second), artists want one thing: to be remembered.  Yes, approval at the time of creation and presentation is important, but it’s the legacy that matters more.

It’s deeply ingrained.  A small child probably doesn’t have too much of a fixation on death or a true understanding of the stark fact that, someday, he will no longer be around, but even so, the instinct to live on through a piece of art is there.

And, from the Lascaux Paintings to Moby Dick, that hope is sometimes fulfilled…  more often, it isn’t, but the lightning in a bottle can happen.

Moby Dick - Herman Melville

I mention Moby Dick because, in literature, period popularity doesn’t necessarily track to immortality.  Melville died believing Moby Dick was another failure in a career filled with them.  Also believing he was a failure on the day he died was F.Scott Fitzgerald.  And Poe, of course.  Emily Dickinson’s poetry was, for the most part, discovered after her death (only about a dozen of her 1800 poems saw the light while she lived).  Lovecraft and Howard are two men that the SFF genre anointed well after they were gone.

Of course, critical reevaluation and fame aren’t necessarily the rule.  For every rediscovered author or poet who joins the canon once safely buried, there are ten that are universally accepted to be creating literary history as they write, a million who will never be recognized at all and a thousand whose bestsellers are no longer read by anyone (an amazingly interesting read is this page of bestsellers from a hundred years ago).

But writers who were establishing themselves forever were sometimes easy to spot.  Dickens was writing history and everyone knew it.  Harper Lee cemented her position in the pantheon and retired (well, mainly… let’s pretend Watchman never happened).  Then there was Joyce, who established not only his reputation, but will, now and forever, define modernist literature.

But those are classic writers.  Much more important to those writing today is the question: “So what about MY writing?”

Short answer?  No one knows.  Stephen King might be the next Dickens, a man whose work was wildly popular in its day and had staying power as the best reflection of an era, or he might be completely forgotten.  The same could happen with the writers on the other end of the commercial spectrum (although it’s more likely that they will be forgotten, as there are less people around that would remember them).

Me?  I always have this image of a scholar in 500 years or so coming across a brittle anthology containing one of my stories, a precious relic of the final days of print, and writing a misguided book-length dissertation on the way my characters reflect my subconscious manifestations of my desire to retire to a monastic existence on Ceres.

If that, or anything equivalent, ever happens, my work shall be done.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is called Timeless.  The theme of why authors write is also explored in that one… although the motivations are very different than what he cites above, proving, once again, that you can’t trust writers to keep the same idea in their heads for more than a few weeks.  Timeless can be purchased here.

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Stripping the World to its Bare Bones

Albert Camus L'Etranger First Edition

It’s amusing to wonder what the Wehrmacht censors thought when presented with Albert Camus’ novella The Stranger for their approval in 1942. One can imagine them getting together in a smoke-filled meeting room, looking into each other’s eyes to see if any of them had taken any particular offense (or even any particular meaning) from the book and then, with a collective shrug, approved it for lack of any better idea.

After all, a book about the world’s indifference to someone completely outside of all its rules–Nazi, Allied, Polynesian, it makes no difference–can’t be framed as a political tract or even particularly subversive.

And, in that light, they were correct.  The books subversiveness is aimed at a much deeper level of existence than mere politics.

But let’s talk about the politics for a second.  The Nazis–the freaking NAZIS–let it pass and yet in the post-colonial world a sequel was written where the arabic characters were given a life of their own. Talk about completely missing the point and making a fool of oneself.  This is why so many post-colonial movements are derided: they put anger ahead of brains, and it shows a little too strongly.

Albert Camus Philosopher

So what does it subvert if not the social and political structure of its day, which it accepts without question?

It goes after the very core of what it means to be human.  By looking at the world through the eyes of the ultimate flatliner and alienated outsider, Camus questions the botom layer of the fabric of society.  Family.  Friends.  Lovers.  The very existence of a possible connection between two individuals besides shared interests and shared pleasure.

In that sense, it’s a brilliant exercise and flinches away from the end consequences only a couple of times that I was able to spot.

Of course, it’s also a dead end.  The reader is left feeling very little for the character at the end of the book.  Perhaps a vague sense that it would have been a happier ending if someone had recognized his right to be different… but also that it probably wouldn’t have made all that difference after all.  The nihilism is a bit contagious.

It’s also a dead end because it doesn’t really deal with the human condition except at one extreme, and that extreme, though valid as an argument–why can’t humans be allowed to live within their own moral codes–is still not a discussion (seventy five years after the book was writen) that humanity is mature enough to have.  People who deviate from the social establishment (be that a small group such as an office, a medium-sized group such as a political party or a large one such as a nation-state) are treated badly and metaphorically put to death.

I’ll leave others to attempt to link this one to the modern world (try analyzing a school shooting through this lens and you’ll come up with a disturbing and different take), but I do recomend giving it a read.  It’s one of those which sets the borders of human thought, and that’s always valuable.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argetine novelist and short story writer.  If you enjoy reading about outsiders, check out his novella Branch, which explores what might happen when humanity splits into distinct species.

The Single Biggest Issue with Postmodernism

It’s interesting to note that, of all philosophical trends in history, only modernism was declared dead due to a failure of architecture.  The demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis was hailed by everyone from serious sociologists to literary critics as the end of one era and the beginning of the next, which they imaginatively called “postmodernism”.

pruitt-igoe implosion

Pruitt-Igoe complex demolition – hailed as the end of Modernism.

Of course, the aspiring postmodernists had were simply using a fortuitous event to further their cause and ignoring inconvenient truths.  While it’s true that Pruitt-Igoe was undoubtedly designed on modernist principles, its failure had more to do with mismanagement and public policies than with modernism itself*.

In the long tradition of social reformers, however, the postmodernists ignored the facts and pushed their way of thinking forward – successfully.

In its original form, postmodernism was a typical adolescent rebellion by social theorists against what had come before, turning a skeptical eye towards both antique institutions and modernism itself.

So far, so good.  They say nothing is more predictable for intelligent people than the avant-garde, and postmodernism was living up to that truism from the outset, and would soon settle down to become the established norm with new rules and values.

They did this admirably.  Nowadays, if you know what is particular pet topic is, you can write a postmodernist scholar’s paper for him before he knows he is going to write it**.

And therein lies the problem, and ultimate barrenness of postmodern thought.  At some point, postmodernism began searching for tools with which to give form to what began as a rejection of what came before, and they seem to have taken a wrong turn.

The central tenet they ended up embracing is, in layman’s terms, that there is no such thing as a “big picture”, and that it is perfectly valid to analyze individual elements separately – and in a separate, but ultimately equally damaging turn, that the observer is a critical part of the analysis.

While subjectivists were alive in Ancient Greece, the idea that single-element analysis is valid it’s called deconstruction, BTW) has been particularly detrimental in combination with it, damaging fields as disparate as History and Architecture.

We can dispense with the architectural elements easily – all one needs to do is to envision a building where the elements are meant to be viewed individually with no concern for the whole.  There are some out there (you can see one below – and it isn’t even the ugliest), but most architects have a grounding in art history, and an appreciation for aesthetics, so they have, on the whole, rejected the idea that the big picture is irrelevant.

k2_building_tokyo

The K2 building is Pure postmodernism.

Where things do get unfortunate, however is in the softer sciences such as history or literary criticism (I won’t repeat the XKCD joke here – go find it yourself!).

History students suffering the postmodern wave of revisionism (every movement has its revisionist wave) are being taught that unimportant groups and people were just as important as the movers and shakers of their era.  That slaves were historically important in societies where they were just used as human cattle, or that minority groups were politically influential in ancient India, or whatever.  The justification seems to be that the history of anyone who ever existed is important, so it must be taught as important.

The reality is that the suffering of minorities, slaves, or any other disenfranchised group is only important in times when the group managed to get some kind of power… if not, their suffering actually was in vain.

And yet, historians today are telling a different story.  It’s all very democratic, but will ultimately prove as damaging to the science as any other philosophically-based prejudice (see Eugenics for another 20th century attempt to fit history to philosophy – that one didn’t turn out so well either).

Criticism is often a butt of jokes about the academic worth of its practitioners, but we have to admit that, lately, the discipline has earned the scorn.

The problem is that with deconstruction allowing one to choose the focus one wants, it becomes easy – nay, obligatory – to focus on a single dimension when evaluating a work of art.

Warhol Campbells Soup

Soup Can: very pretty, but how does it speak to animal rights?

So a novel that touches the human spirit can be attached for not being feminist enough, a beautiful sculpture is worthless because it doesn’t address the plight of oppressed minorities.  Postmodernism’s obsession with minutiae blinds it to everything other than minutiae, to its own detriment.  Political arguments in the early 21st century seem to be imbibed with the same kind of narrow-gauge thinking.

It ends up feeling like postmodernism is the whiny self-absorbed teenager of philosophical movements…  Even to the point where there are already rumblings of a post-postmodernism.

However, like whiny teenagers, it will be hard to steer this one to a good port.  You see, the death blow to postmodernist thought has already been dealt, nearly two decades ago.

In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal submitted an intentionally flawed, parodical academic article to peer-reviewed postmodern journal Social Text.  Not only did the ridiculous piece pass the peer review process, but, after Sokal came forward to announce the hoax, some of the journals defenders actually said that (and I paraphrase) “Sokal didn’t understand the actual depth and significance of the piece he had written”.

Now that is more embarrassing than a simple demolition, don’t you think?

 

 

 

*Modernism clearly had its moronic moments, but Pruitt-Igoe wasn’t its fault.

**For example, that last sentence would be rewritten by a feminist post-modernist using “her” in place of “him” and “she” in place of “he”.  A multi-gender postmodernist will attempt to use an invented gender-neutral word in its place, etc.

The Need for Secular Faith

Voice of God
Classically Educated prides itself on being eclectic.  Our manifesto makes it clear that we are looking to display as broad a variety of disciplines as possible.  That is patly because we believe in the conceptual superiority of Polymath discipline but mainly because we have a severe case of “shiny” syndrome.
 
Under these premises, we had an inexplicable gap in our subject matter: faith.  It is a concept that has been central to human experience for as long as human experience has existed… and yet, we’ve only mentioned it tangentially when we made fun of gullibility in the name of spirituality.  Clearly, a more measured, serious approach was needed.
 
But who could write it?  Faith is a polarizing, moving subject and our regular contributors and especially our editorial team tend to be strongly opinionated and often atheistic – which is great for most subjects, but bad for this one.  We think we’ve got the right man for the job.  After many years of mental hibernation and corporate procrastination we finally get a piece from our deep north correspondent in the mountains near Seattle.  He has asked us to refer to him as “The Delay Lemming” (which we found fitting, so that’s his new handle).  We believe this piece will make you think (or is that: “we think this piece will make you believe”?).
 

I grew up in Buenos Aires in what I consider a very representative context towards religion for the country: there is a historical base of Catholicism that feeds many customs and morals, but for the most part the rest is fairly secular.  My grandma would go to church on Sundays, my mother on Christmas, and I would only go there when someone was getting married.  When I moved to the USA later in life I saw a similar thing in the liberal half of the population – the base is now Protestant, the morals have different relative weights but for the purpose of this article are largely the same.

There is also a need, fueled by the religious divide with the other more zealous half of the population, to distance oneself from all things religious and push forward an atheist view. The goal is to base choices on the best available science (like vaccination) as opposed to following what was deemed right and wrong by the scripture of choice. In this context, faith is equated with religion and seen as the enemy of progress and common sense.

xkcd religions
(Original comic here.  Click to see the mouse-over)

If you take a pragmatic approach to a human level, the choices we make have consequences in our lives.  We make those choices based on our own models of the world in what we think would yield the best outcome.  These models have inherent probabilities associated with them, like rolling dice, and as such a level of uncertainty and randomness.  When the outcome meets the model and our expectations, we pride ourselves in our superior understanding of the world and rational choices.  But when the unexpected happens, when unforeseen consequences arise or when we start throwing people and emotions into the mix, the results are blurrier.

In these failure scenarios, the most often answer given by religion is faith: believe in our model of the world and trust that there is a higher-order reason for your current suffering.  Billions often find solace in this answer and atheists tend to reject it wholeheartedly. The engineering answer is to look for new information and update the model accordingly to account for this miscalculation – but what about the times when there is none?
Secular Faith
The answer I believe to be also faith, but a secular kind of faith.  This would be the belief that the model you acted on had a high probability of success but yielded failure on this occasion. The faith comes from understanding the odds and thinking about behavior in the long term, believing that acting on this model was indeed the best thing to do despite a failed sample outcome, and thus continue to act this way in the future. The emotional frustration and the discipline that this conviction requires mimics that of religious belief, which should open a path to empathy and hopefully improve the conversation.

Agree wholeheartedly?  Disagree violently?  Have a  slightly deranged opinion about something completely unrelated to this post? That’s what the comments section is for.