Identifying Things

Identification, says Korzybski, is a blunt tool. Language is a box full of tools, all imperfect, none quite fit for purpose, their functioning performative and never exactly descriptive. Meaning: anything we can say about the world is never quite how the world is, a chair is not “a chair”. Is not the word “chair” that we use to identify it. Using the word “chair” helps us to get along. But there are drawbacks to getting along with imperfect tools.

Just as it can be tiring to use the wrong screwdriver, even if it’ll get the job done in the end, so it’s fatiguing to use the wrong concepts, even though we seem to get along fine at the time. “What’s wrong with you?” “I’m just tired.” And that’s enough to explain away the nausea.

And other times we can feel we’re not getting on fine at all. The exhaustion is palpable, and we start to press uncomfortably against the limitations of language. Thinking in words isn’t working. But how else to think?

Using the words I have at my disposal, it’s difficult to think of myself as a process, rather than a state of being. And yet I seem to be changing all the time. I’m feeling out of sorts today, and I don’t know why. “I’m confused”, “I’m tired”, “I’m sad” … None of these quite seems to fit. I’m not any one of these states, but a point somewhere between them all. And others I can’t name right now. Even this isn’t quite right. “I am I.” Even this. I’m not this point, or this thought, or this body, or anything. No thing, no state. What am I?

I close my eyes and stop thinking. Ten, twenty minutes meditation and I’ll be right again. Stop thinking. That’s the goal, but do you ever stop thinking? A different kind of thinking then.

I see that oscillating point now, shimmering between the different states of being. And soon I’m following its vibrations, and I don’t see it at all, only feel it, and what I see now are only ripples of colour, and shapes in shifting shadow. And then … When I open my eyes, what I have seen falls fast from my memory. Waking from a dream. Perhaps it’s not what I saw, but what I felt, the images there were a side-effect, might have been anything. Ephemeral symbols, necessary for the dream but torn away now, never to exist in that connection again.

Language wants everything fixed, so this means that, and that means this. But people change, and maybe ephemeral symbols, that can be picked up and used and then unattached again and put down when the dream is over, are the only symbols we can use to describe what it is to exist as a human being, as a person, as anything.

People change. “When you stop growing you start dying,” as William Burroughs said. It’s change that’s so difficult to describe.

You get to a point where you’re comfortable and you stick. There’s nothing to be gained by taking a new risk in a land governed by identity. So I assert that “I am I” and forget that when these words were first uttered they were intended for a platform, a jumping off point, a dead “I”, springboard to a higher self, an ongoing process. But instead I say “I am what I am” and I’m contented.

Blunt tools are perfect if you want to wear yourself out. And down. And maybe this is what we want: to be just tired enough at the end of the day to be able to say “I tried, I did my best”, contented after our ten hours, to work, and work, and back home again. And not fearing death, because death is just the end of a process of winding down, from the anxiety of youth, to happy tired middle age, to the inertia of old age, and on to and into the grave.

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Toynbee and the Enlightenment

Arnold J Toynbee has some bad news in Volume VI of his A Study of History: Western civilisation is showing all the signs of being in its final decline.

Civilisations decline when they fail to respond to challenges they face. History has “rhythms”, and the whole of Toynbee’s Study has been an attempt to give names to these rhythms: “challenge-and-response”, “withdrawal-and-return”, “rout-and-rally”, and so on. History is only made where its rhythms persist, where challenge is met with response, where withdrawal is followed by return. If Western civilisation cannot respond to its challenges, or withdraws into itself never to return, is routed never to rally, then it will be replaced by some other power, and the march of History will continue without it.

For example, Toynbee points to the Enlightenment as an inadequate response to a challenge. From the 18th Century onwards there has been an accelerating decline of religion, the glue that – Toynbee believes – holds society together. The West’s big response to this crisis was the Enlightenment, which attempted to unify the disillusion already prevalent in society into a new world view that championed reason and science and left faith to one side. As a result, the decline of religion – decline of belief in faith, hope, and charity – was allowed to continue, reinforced by the new movement. The challenge of the decline of religion was never properly met, and as a result Western society has been in decline ever since.

Toynbee’s view is strange to me, since I’ve always been taught of the centrality of faith, hope, and charity in Enlightenment thinking. Immanuel Kant and many of his followers emphasise the importance of faith alongside scientific enquiry, they and other thinkers stress the hope that science and critical thinking brings for humanity, and the Enlightenment brings with it new humanisms and liberalisms that put the needs of the poor at the centre of political thinking. I can’t think how any more “religion” at the heart of the Enlightenment project could have made the response a better one.

But perhaps that is exactly the point. I cannot think of a better response than the Enlightenment because it has already done its work, and I already live in a (disintegrating) society largely devoid of religion. I can’t imagine what new religion might have arisen to replace the failing Christianities that emerged both from Rome and the Reformation, because to imagine such a new religion would have been a huge creative act, far beyond the powers of one like me who – on most days at least – blithely accepts the non-existence of God. Religion simply isn’t a problem for me, because I have no need for it, living as I do in the ruins of Western civilisation.

And this is what makes Toynbee intriguing to me: his suggestion that History has shaped the imagination of the individual, determined which possibilities are within our grasp, and, conversely, what possible worlds lie outside our field of vision. Having finished reading Toynbee’s Study, I’m left with an eerie doubt that we might not live in the best of all possible worlds, and that the solutions to our problems might forever elude us, for as long as our civilisation lives.

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Review: The Moon and Sixpence

I picked up The Moon and Sixpence, having heard it was “inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin,” expecting to read a novelised biography of the artist, with an appropriate level of artistic licence. What you get with this book, in fact, is a fictional work that uses the real life of Gauguin only as a starting point for a gripping drama with a compelling anti-hero at its centre.

The Moon and Sixpence, by William Somerset Maugham, is the story of Charles Strickland, a painter and struggling genius. Strickland suddenly leaves his wife and his day job and flees to Paris, to commit himself to painting, to the shock of all those in the polite society around him. The story is narrated by a writer who moves in these polite circles, and becomes acquainted with Strickland when he’s given the task, by Strickland’s wife, of following the artist to Paris, to try to persuade him to return.

The narrator struggles to understand the struggling artist, and this lends a mystery to the portrait that I found appealing. Strickland is always calling the narrator a “damned fool” or the like, for failing to understand what drives the artist. The narrator simply cannot understand why a man would throw off all his duties, hurting others in the process, simply in order to paint. Though a writer, the narrator just is not an artist, and so can never understand. It puts us, as readers, at a distance from the artist himself, we seem only to see him side-on, literally a profile of the artist with only hints at the depths. It’s been suggested that Maugham’s inability to penetrate the depths of creative genius is a weakness of this book. I would say rather that it’s this that gives the book its distinctive and compelling quality, its realness in helping us to see what it would mean for an ordinary person to come into the presence of true genius.

Rich and enjoyable, The Moon and Sixpence is one of Maugham’s best works. Full of thoughtful and sometimes deep (if not strictly original) insights, it will keep you thinking as you turn the pages to see what happens next.

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Reading Toynbee

Perhaps there’s nothing you have to do and nowhere you have to be. You’re on your own, so you’ve only yourself to worry about. But what is there to worry about when you’ve only yourself to worry about?

A quiet spot of reading. I’m usually a noisy reader. I cry out, I laugh, I write hasty notes in the margins. But what would it be to just read? Is it possible to sit and be still and just listen?

Would I even be aware of what I was reading? Reading is usually a conversation. I react. I chime in. What could it mean to read a book in silence?

Thinking, perhaps? But no, to think is to surprise yourself, to react and respond to what you discover. Thinking is a noisy process too. Thinking is not the same as being still and silent.

A time to stop. There is nowhere you need to be, nothing to think about. When I pick up the book and start reading, the words are already familiar to me. And whatever I don’t understand I already know is irrelevant, it’s not for me, and I can let it pass. “What we cannot speak about …” I am happy not to understand. It’s not my business, for now at least, in this moment.

Arnold J Toynbee has his own concerns and his own character. He says things I can’t agree with. And usually in my noisy reading I assume I’m supposed to agree, and I become obstinate, and I scribble exclamation marks and questions in the margins. But now I watch him speak and I smile, and I learn what sort of person he must have been to say these things. I enjoy him, as the narrator of his own story. I reserve judgement.

I still write in the margins, it’s an old habit. But I pause before I write. And what I write is appreciative, not combative. I note the story that Toynbee is telling, and I try to enjoy it. It’s a tale of a vast empire that brought peace and justice to the world, but is now in a time of trouble, and probably decline. It’s a fabrication like any other.

Slowly I’m building the picture piece by piece. I think back on my own past wrongheadedness, and wonder at the ways I must be wrongheaded still. I’ll look back and shake my head at what I’m writing now. And I forgive myself and I have no regrets, just as Toynbee now, in his grave, regrets nothing.

There’s nothing for me to do here. I know this well enough already. What I don’t understand is not for me. I listen as I would listen to a friend on a late evening, through a pleasant drunken haze.

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Sunday I Ching: On Throwing Things Away and Going to China

Where have you been? There’s no getting rid of the clutter.

In this life now I am surrounded by old papers, magazines, short blunt pencils, piles of wrinkle-spined novels, a dusty-lidded and long-closed piano, and plastic containers for used up medicines.

They’re forging a new beginning for me, and I have to be ready for it. I need to make myself receptive, capable of listening, and this means less noise.

Get rid of old clutter! And throwing away what you don’t need you find out what’s left of you, the heart of your simple being.

In simple being you can be open and truthful – perhaps speaking out some difficult truths – and bring yourself forward into your new life.

Every piece of paper, old box of junk, speck of dust – I wonder if this is where I have my being. And I hang onto it just in case. I’m afraid to leave it. Leaving this fragment behind could mean death.

But living in fear is hardly living at all. So don’t fear life or death. Get rid of the clutter.

I’m confused now about my position. I’ve always preferred to have things defined clearly. Each scrap I uncover has different information written on it, sometimes a whole story about me, but I seem to be reading each story for the first time. And each story is set in an impossible time and place, in times before my body existed, or thousands of years after my predicted lifespan will be over. How long can a spirit live for? I can’t assemble a clear message out of this mess. So keep getting rid of the clutter, and risk everything, and see what’s next.

To consult the oracle I shook 3 five pence pieces like dice, rattling them in my hands each time before dropping them onto the mat. It was a firm, solid motion, and a very masculine result. The oracle told me it’s about pressing on and breaking through.

My sense of who I am and what I am to do is becoming clearly defined, and I’ll find a place to complete this transformation in China. In my anticipation of going to China. I’m forging a state of mind, a “China” like Henry Miller’s. A vessel for travel.

I need to clear out the old stuff that’s blocking me. Some of the things I have to do are difficult. The physical tidying up and throwing away of old things: I hate doing this. It means cutting old ties. In China there will be no ties. There will be only gravity: I see the fluid and majestic movement of bodies around and past each other, crowded streets where each person travels at their own predetermined speed. And I among them, moving around and through the slow flow, tickled and jolted by the unfamiliar rhythms in the speech sounds that surround me and pass through me like music.

Hear that! The new harmony you’ll find in China. What is to come will be stable and lasting. I’m approaching 40, and Confucius says it’s time to be free of doubt.

I’m carrying forward something of value. Some cargo. My learning, perhaps, what little there is of it. I’ll be able to use what I have and succeed in teaching or writing. I wonder which it will be. Or both?

Be truthful and confident and speak out about the direction you’re heading in. Focus on where you’re going, instead of reacting against the past. I’m a writer now. I’m a teacher. Work out in what sense you’re both of these things: do you have a job, and can you do it?

China is a breakthrough: asserting myself, and breaking through indecision.

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Notes on The Soft Machine Chapter 10: “Last Hints”

This chapter is about Carl continuing his travels through space and time by finding a new body. He’s back in the city of catwalks and ladders and cable-cars in the middle of a jungle. Presumably he’s already changed bodies at least once since he arrived, since at the end of chapter 8 he was turned into a pile of green slime. But we mustn’t take things too literally and any interpretation is possible.

“Carl descended a spiral iron smell of ozone.” With cut-up, Burroughs achieves a pared down prose that makes even the pulp writers he admired seem long-winded. He could have written “Carl descended a spiral iron staircase and there was a smell of ozone”, but we don’t need all this. With what we’re given we see (and smell) immediately what we’re supposed to. This is one of those cut up sentences read it aloud and you can hear the cut, two messages cut together to give the full picture:

“Carl descended a spiral iron …”

“… smell of ozone.”

Like we’re listening to two channels at once, switching attention between the two to get the full sight and smell picture.

Carl meets a boy and sees that “through his eyes the look out different”. He’s sizing up his victim, the one who will give him a new body and therefore a new mind and therefore a new perspective on life and therefore a new position in space time and therefore a new mode of being. He’ll be rejuvenated taking the body of this young man. “Woke up in other flesh …” is how the chapter ends, once Carl has seduced him and entered him and by this method taken his body.

We mustn’t take things too literally. On the one hand this is straightforward science fiction, where a group of individuals have learned how to travel through space and time by occupying other bodies and minds. It’s a horror story, where a race of psychopaths see human beings as so much flesh to be put to use for their own experiments. But however you interpret the story, the most important thing is the book itself, The Soft Machine, the artefact you hold in your hands that is the product of the real life application of the cut-up method. A new method, or “technology”. With cut-up you don’t only create books, but also transform and control minds, alter reality, and look into the future.

This much we must take literally: Burroughs believed in the real life application of the writing and recording methods he described and demonstrated in this book. Pay attention to the outer layer, the text itself. The futuristic world described there is a prophecy of what is possible if you take up this book and learn from it and apply these methods yourself.

The author, and the books he’s written, keep popping up in the book not just as a piece of post-modern cleverness, but as a reminder that the book you hold in your hands is itself part of the story, and that the story is real, and you as reader play a part in it.

Like all great science fiction, the Soft Machine describes a world both future and present, imaginary and real.

(P.S. I’ve written another essay about Burroughs, just published at Empty Mirror. You can read it there now.)

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Notes on The Soft Machine Chapter 8: “I Sekuin”

“… the old hop smoking world I created …”

Who created it?

“I Sekuin …”

Who are you?

“I Sekuin Perfected These Arts Along The Streets Of Minraud.”

Sekuin has perfected the art of image-control. Word dust blows through the streets of his city, and settles on shop window frames.

Sekuin is a kind of deity, this landscape belongs to him because it is his creation. He made it through cut-up, reducing the words and images to dust and fragments.

“Darkness fell in heavy chunks blocking out sections of the city.”

I found this chapter hard to grasp. It describes the end point of the cut-up experiments, a nightmarish horror city-scape in which no kind of continuity can survive. Minraud is a city broken into fragments and filled with dust. When the word is destroyed, disjointed cities like Minraud will be all that remains of the world.

Bradly, the tragic hero of this chapter, crash lands here and is immediately seized by one of the local inhabitants, who wants to help him, or this is what he says.

“You crazy or something walk around alone?”

But who could live in this desolation? Is this a human being or just a spectre, a projection, an assemblage of images and words conjured up in a moment by the wind that carries the dust through the empty streets?

Bradly follows his guide, the spectre. What else can he do?

He’s taken to a restaurant, he’s in need of a meal. “Krishnus,” his guide says, as the waiter puts the strange food stuff down on the table. Bradly eats “in ravenous gulps.”

Later, Bradly is seduced by his guide. They undress and smear a bright green substance over each other’s bodies. This green slime burns their bodies away until all that is left of them is the slime. This is Bradly’s form now in this world, his human body dissolved away. Slime that will itself eventually break apart, disintegrate, and dissolve into the scenery.

Sekuin watches the scene, watches sadly his own world “… the old hop smoking world I created mutters between years saddest of all movies frosted on the glass wind and dust through empty streets and gutted buildings spectral janitors grey autumn chill in the ashes cold dusty halls …”

And through the emptiness his past self calls out to him. Who was Sekuin before he was Sekuin? What is this past identity calling out to him now?

“… a petition from the old me … the narcotics department … Colonel Smoky … Chinese waiters … Pantapon Rose … Bill Gains …”

These are names from Burroughs’s past work. Sekuin is Burroughs, it was Burroughs who created this desolate hellscape and became Sekuin, a captive in his own creation. This silence, where words must become dust to blow endlessly along desolate grey streets and human beings must be reduced to slime.

“Under Sign Of The Centipede. A Captive Head. In Minraud Time.”

Sekuin is Burroughs himself, at an extreme. Burroughs is showing us the extreme desolation that exists at the furthest limit of cut-up experimentation. He’ll return from this limit, from this point of self-destruction, to turn his technique around against a greater evil in the world …

(I’ve been reading The Soft Machine by William Burroughs. All the stuff in quotation marks is taken from there.)

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