Ars Poetica For The Ones Like Us

November 15, 2014

Simple language, complex effects.
A poem about a story about a man
Whose song becomes a never-ending poem.
That is, a poem about a poem.
Ars poetica, indeed.
This unending poem is like a home that protects and shuts out the world,
With an attic “where aesthetic and spiritual innuendoes / Float.”
Leakages occur across the inside-outside divide,
Life and art with their competing demands.
This poem by Terrance Hayes deserves a wide readership.
But remember to open the windows
And let the world in.
Yes, you.

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The Dark Side of Sympathy

November 3, 2014

If you think reason is the better angel of our nature, think again.

According to Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, the noblest aspect of human nature is revealed in our sympathetic dealings with others. Sympathy, not reason, is the royal road to overcoming selfish and destructive behaviors. Yet even sympathy has a dark side, as indicated by the title of the book. But before we explore the dangers of sympathy, here’s a quick overview of Haidt’s fascinating work.

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In The Righteous Mind, Haidt plumbs the latest in neuroscience, genetics, social psychology, and evolutionary theory to provide an account of how people think and the evolutionary forces that have shaped our thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, he advances three principles of moral psychology:

1. Intuitions come first, strategic reason second

“We don’t reason about moral matters to discover the truth,” says Haidt. “We reason to justify our beliefs.” In the early 90′s, Haidt conducted interviews to probe reactions to the morality of harmless but offensive stories. Thirty eight percent of those he surveyed claimed someone was harmed even though the stories were carefully crafted to exclude harm. He found the people quickly condemned the action in a snap judgment. Haidt construes this as evidence that reasoning often serves intuitions, not the other way round.

2. There’s more to morality than harm and fairness

In the Western world, we’ve embraced an ethic of autonomy, which protects rights and liberty and balances justice for individuals. We tend to think that actions are permissible so long as they don’t harm anyone else. But there are other moral frameworks in the world, as a simple matter of fact.

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In an ethic of community, moral concerns center on duty, hierarchy, respect, and patriotism. Here people are viewed as members of a group, not as separate individual people. Tribes, groups and families are worthy of moral regard, independently of what a person thinks or feels.

In an ethic of divinity, central moral concepts include sin, sanctity and purity. People are seen in relationship to God, gods, or something supreme that’s worthy of worship. In this worldview, moral concerns focus on the need to protect the “divine” dimension of life.

Now if you’re like me, you’re at home in an ethic of autonomy. But before you shrug off the moral language of community and divinity, ask yourself, “Is it OK for a brother and sister to have consensual yet 100% protected sex?” Or, “Is it OK to use a dead chicken for sexual gratification?”

Well, is it?

Like Haidt says, there’s more to morality than harm and fairness.

3. Morality binds and blinds

Morality has a light and a dark side. On the one hand, morality enables people to get along within a group.

“When I say that human nature is selfish,” Haidt explains, “I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our own interests, in competition with our peers. When I say that human nature is also groupish, I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group’s interests, in competition with other groups. We are not saint, but we are sometimes good team players.”

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On the other hand, morality, in enabling us to overcome selfishness and form cohesive groups, creates a new problem, namely, out-group tension and conflict.

“Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings—but no other animals—to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship. But at the same time, our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralistic strife.”

Beyond the righteous mind

One of the finest aspects of Haidt’s work is that he suggests a path forward, a way for us to accept the brute facts of in-group and out-group dynamics, while identifying areas where interventions, both technological and educational, can help minimize the effects of our moral blind spots.

Full piece is cross-posted on the HopeLab blog.


where i’m writing from

March 22, 2014

Am I still a book blogger or simply on hiatus?

“Aren’t you due for another blog,” asks Kathy of mirabile dictu.

Yes and no.

Although I’m certainly not an active book blogger at the moment, I’m still reading, always reading.

The Righteous Mind by J. Haidt validates Hume’s famous thesis that reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.

Where I’m Calling From by R. Carver, a bloke I’ve been wanting to read ever since I learned that he and I share many geographical locations in common, from Chico to Cupertino, and beyond.

Carver sits at the feet of the common. I like that, a lot. Blue collar gritty stuff.

Plus his prose is as addicting as Candy Crush.

Moral Tribes by J. Greene is a full-court press that smothers the idea of moral incommensurability and replaces it with a pragmatic understanding of utilitarianism.

His work is fascinating in that he combines first-rate philosophy with leading-edge neuroscience.

The result is a new appreciation of moral psychology. Highly recommend it.

J. Greene almost had the pleasure of meeting me in Berkeley. He doesn’t know this yet, but he and I will get along famously.

I’m confident that way.

Lastly, An Equal Music by V. Seth, a novel that roused me to enthusiasm early on with prose like “What I lost I have never come close to retrieving” and “I become the music of the scale. I mute my will, I free my self” but have since tired of the glacial plotting.

Beyond reading

Is there such a thing? No. Even when I’m on business travel, I read everything around me as though they were pages.

I recently boarded a plane early in the morning.

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I landed in Honolulu and went for a glorious two-hour urban hike.

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I saw signs…

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…and tentacles and suckers. That, or “Aloha” in Braille.

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Then I devoured the soft and juicy bits of things to sate my hunger.

4I looked out the window of my room.

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I saw people lying in the sun near the pool.

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I went for a swim and because decency requires that voyeurism not take the form of a clicking camera phone, you’ll just have to trust me when I say that I saw many beautiful people. The ugly young were pretty, and several of the old cougars were pretty, too. And even that pale German tourist wearing way too-tight James Bond swim trunks, even he was handsome after a fashion.

That is all.


on the dangers of reading too often

February 3, 2014

Grad school is a period of extended adolescence. One’s future is up in the air, and one is largely dependent on others, especially creditors. Unlike adolescents, however, grad students often lead very sedentary lives. farmerThey burrow into libraries amongst musty aisles of books. And they stoop over their reading and stuff their faces with flaky croissants and stain pages of books with inkblots of coffee. Sure, the cloistered life of learning has its advantages, but physical activity isn’t one of them. In One of Ours, many contrasts are in play: urban/rural, individual/group, and reason/faith, among others. But my favorite contrast hands down, and the one that makes me chuckle at all hours of the day, whenever I think of it, is the contrast between the life of the body, say, farming, and the life of the mind. Of a young man who intends to be a professor, Claude’s muscular and sun-burned neighbor drily asks, “What’s the matter with him? Does he have poor health?”

Postscript. In related Bay Area news, here’s a tribute to a “crusty old farmer who had a dream.” I have something approaching love for him.


Ghost in Search of a Machine

February 1, 2014

One of Ours is a 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Willa Cather. Like a Quentin Tarantino Film, the story starts in one genre but ends in another. No, I was never a big fan of From Dusk Till Dawn. So it’s no surprise that One of Ours leaves me dissatisfied.

Books I through III are set on the prairie of Nebraska. We follow the growth and development of Claude, who searches for something fine and splendid in life, as he navigates the crass materialism of his dad and the foolish piousness of his mom. The prairie sections of the novel are quite lovely. Even the creek bears witness to it.

“The sun popped up over the edge of the prairie like a broad, smiling face; the light poured across the close-cropped August pastures and the hilly, timbered windings of Lovely Creek…”

But when Claude journeys to France to fight in World War I, Cather’s bildungsroman morphs into an uninspired war novel. It’s as though the narrator, at first totally enthralled by Claude and the comforts and pleasures (and difficulties) of country boyhood, abruptly loses interest in her host and breaks free from the skull of Claude’s experience. In books IV and V, a homunculus is on the loose, one that’s gallivanting about, fascinated by cheese and architecture, and by the abstract joys of military life, of marching together, of living and dying together.

Problem is, an Odysseus who leaves home in search of an ideal is only as interesting as the inner experience that propels him. And this experience is largely ignored once Cather’s narrative gaze looks beyond the green alfalfa and “shattered grain” of Nebraska.

No wonder I’m homesick for the Midwest.


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