I like this.
Something this morning in an analysis of data at The Washington Post by James Hohmann strikes me as extremely hopeful for Democrats. It may prove, in 2018 and 2020, that what holds the Democratic coalition together to beat the fractured Republican coalition is Trump hatred–exactly as Hillary hatred held together the Trump coalition in 2016.
In other words, for the next two election cycles, Republicans may hold the HATE POTATO–which is Donald Trump himself–and they may hold it all by their lonesome. There’s no Hillary to kick around anymore. Here’s the key quote from Hohmann’s article:
Trump keeps talking about Hillary Clinton because it’s the best way to hold his coalition together….In every GOP faction…voters strongly dislike Clinton at about twice the rate that they strongly like Trump. (Similarly, Democrats are held together right now by their near universal disdain for Trump.)
Since Hillary is off of the political basketball court going forward, perhaps all that Democrats really need to do in 2018 and 2020 is to recruit nice, young, centrist, non-scary people to run for offices. Do you suppose they can do it–or will they blow the layup?
Maybe it’s an evolution thing. (Of course, everything is an evolution thing.) But what I mean is: all life forms are taking gambles in each moment as to how they’ll expend their energy or conserve it. On the continuum of evolutionary strategies surrounding the value of, say, a college writing class to one’s future and reproductive success, some will put forward a high-energy gambit, others a low one, and still others will fall somewhere in the middle. How much energy is put into an essay is the measure of one’s evolutionary strategy as deployed at a very particular stage of one’s life, and in a very particular context (environment).
Some have guessed they can skate and still get the grade they want, while others might obsess about their essays in ways that are actually counterproductive to their own life development. (They decline a date on a Saturday night to hole-up with a paper that turns out to be shit even after an excess of fretful editing, etc.)
My point is that every human being on the planet is an enormous lottery winner in the evolutionary game, and is now putting forth his or her own gamble toward the future. An individual’s temperamental set-points for laziness and attention-to-detail are there for a reason: they’ve been highly adaptive in the past, either for themselves or for ancestors they inherited them from. As Dawkins famously notes, each individual is the product of a long line of ancestors going back billions of years, and not a single one of them died before producing at least one viable offspring. It’s a stunning string of successes that lead to each one of us. And the college students sitting in our classes have reached reproductive age without yet getting their Darwin Awards (elimination from the gene pool).
What thus looks like a bad sort of laziness brought to this or that college class may in fact be the right sort and level of laziness for the contingent situations our very particular students find themselves in. Each of them are navigating contending demands on their time. Laziness in a class, for instance, may function as a signal to them, by the end of the semester, that they don’t really want to be in college after all, or be an English major, etc.
And where they in fact put their energy, and display no laziness at all, may indeed prove quite successful for them.
I’m not making excuses for college students, just noting how tricky it is to determine what others, in their contingent life experiences, ought to be doing with their time (as if we know). A professor friend of mine who once taught with me at AVC used to say, “Everyone has their journey.”
For perspective, here’s a clip of John Walton fretting over what to do with his time, and wondering what his dad would have told him.
THE POET’S FICTIONS
No hurry, no preference;
Nothing personal; one fire,
Bring your rebellion.
Bring your solidarity.
Imagine. Bent nail.
If the poet generates a soundtrack to an environment, then the meditator, as poet, generates a meta-soundtrack that goes something like this: In your head, bring the inertial, reactive soundtracks down. Do not desire or avert them, but just let them be. Notice how your habitual and evolved inner soundtracks mash-up with the evolved soundtracks around you (social and natural). In other words, notice that you’re an evolved animal in a very particular existential situation. What’s triggering your evolved brain modules (your inner iTunes playlists, as it were) and what’s actually playing in the present moment from one of those playlists? Again, don’t do anything about what you’re currently experiencing (“It’s never too late to do nothing at all”). Just observe. Do not become spell-cast. Be calm and ironic. Play dead.
Now that you’re unattached from your habitual, reactive soundtracks, attend with dispassion to something quite particular, either within or without. Notice its sui generis (one-of-a-kind) qualities, what conditions its existence, and how it consists of parts and processes that are ultimately impersonal, interconnected, and impermanent. Attend to the thing’s implicit or explicit homeostatic and allostatic rhythms and cycles: how does it maintains its inner logic and balance and respond to outside forces? What makes it a distinct, integral thing? Also notice its age. At what stage in the rising-ripening-and-dying process does it seem to be in? Bring yourself to an ever deeper stillness and silence in relation to that thing, as if you are observing a leaf that has dislodged from a tree beside a pond. (You are the tree. You are alongside a still pond.) Now read this poem:
THE PLAIN SENSE OF THINGS
After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.
It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.
The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.
Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence
Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.
The headless squid bowl sometimes served in Japanese restaurants is odd and fascinating. It strikes me as a metaphor for the cosmos: it goes without a head. How strange. In a sense, even conscious beings like ourselves go without a head as well. When you think about it, who really thinks your thoughts? Do you think your thoughts, or do they just come to you? Aren’t your thoughts happening because neurons stimulated by some combination of genetic and environmental factors trigger them? The neurons themselves are not conscious, and yet they are a condition of your thinking anything at all. Neurons fire in response to stimuli, and you write a blog post, or go to a Japanese restaurant–or, ewww!–avoid both of them. This is what Zennies might call the spontaneous Buddha mind in action, always present and on the move, and which we can discover directly for ourselves to be the case by simply pausing and calmly noticing it dancing all around us and in us. Who are we? We are, collectively, a Mutually Interdependent Arising, the Spontaneous Buddha Mind, the Interconnected Headless Squid. Something like the atheist’s Flying Spaghetti Monster. Yikes.
Think of this Japanese haiku:
The old pond.
A frog jumps in.
No telling how those reverberations will play out. The idea is something like what the novelist Don DeLillo writes in his novel White Noise:
Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don’t want to go to Montana.
Isn’t it odd to discover you have no head? That the cosmos has no head?
Poet, artist, and photographer Charles Hood’s most recent book, Partially Excited States (University of Wisconsin Press 2017), is the winner of the Felix Pollak Prize for this year. I interviewed Hood, a Southern California native, about his new book.
ST: You now share a distinction with a prominent writer in the skeptical community, and I wonder if you know this. In 2005, Jennifer Michael Hecht wrote a book of poetry titled Funny, and it too won the Felix Pollack Prize. Hecht has also written some widely acclaimed skeptical titles, my favorite being Doubt: A History (Harper 2003). Do you know of her, and do you regard yourself as an atheist?
CH: Yes we all know her, right? And envy her clarity of expression? (I do, anyway.) I had to stop going to my long-time church this year when the new pastor just was too Yabba Dabba Doo for words. I miss it though, miss singing the songs I grew up with, miss the sincerity of the congregants (even the homophobic ones). It’s easy to be skeptical, and particle physics even makes it scientific to be uncertain, but I do like the mystics, I like faith, I like C.S. Lewis when he’s a fussy old apologist in a worn-out sweater. I miss the church, even if I can never commit to it fully. Didn’t Wallace Stevens return to faith on his deathbed? Cremate me, that’s fine, but I hope I come back as a really odd animal. A porcupine? Would you like to be a porcupine? The quills make a rattling sound, cold and hollow, as it waddles along. You just trundle through the forest, all alone, gnawing tree trunks and doing your thing, perhaps humming to yourself. In the Amazon last month I saw prehensile-tailed porcupines, sort of a half porcupine, half monkey sort of thing, black and white with a pink nose. Durga the great goddess rides a tiger (or a lion in some versions)—let’s rewrite the story, make it a goddess on a porcupine. That is my faith, part fancy dress party, part ur-narrative.
ST: Oh, well, by that description, I think I may already be a porcupine. As to your book, it isn’t titled Funny, but like Hecht’s, your new collection of poems has a lot of devices in it associated with humor, such as double entendre, as in your poem, “How My Parents Died,” where the narrator writes of a clerk working in an office in which death certificates are processed, and he remarks, “She has a form.” The phrase recalls Theodore Roethke’s poem, “I Knew a Woman” (“when she moved, she moved more ways than one”). Is there, in your view, a natural affinity between what the poet does and what the comedian does? Do people read Hecht, Roethke, and Hood for reasons similar to spending an evening at, say, a comedy club?
CH: Maybe it’s the booze, maybe it’s the late-night hours, but most comedy clubs are safe zones where you can be completely un-PC; alone in my truck I listen to “Raw Dog,” a comedy channel on satellite radio that is R-rated and beyond. It’s a guilty pleasure—I could never have it on if you were riding with me, and I could never do it during daylight, when I am locked onto NPR like the good foot soldier of neo-liberalism that I am. Yet being transgressive is fun: who doesn’t want to put a thumbtack on God’s chair once in a while? Poets, court jesters, standup comedians: we all listen to how language works and then try to bend it the other way. That old Vaudeville joke, “Take my wife…please,” that’s zeugma plus an enjambed line break. A Woody Allen monologue and a Robert Creeley poem both pivot on the same perfectly timed pattern of pause / punch line / pause, without ever cracking a smile.
ST: In your poem, “How My Parents Died,” each line surprises. Instead of a grim, serious poem, it’s in turns energetic and ironic, and its opening lines, “I finally get to Montana—I have always wanted to go to Montana— / but while I am there, my parent die,” recall for me a passage in Don DeLillo’s novel, White Noise: “Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don’t want to go to Montana.” The narrative voice in DeLillo’s novel sounds a lot like your own ironic, experienced, world-weary (because world-familiar) poetic voice. Do you ever get world-weary yourself for long periods of time, or do you just enact it on the page? And if you do get world-weary, who or what lures you back into all the suffering and travel (from the French word travail, ordeal) that you embrace? In spite of life’s ironies, pains, and pratfalls, should we go to Montana anyway? Should we be good Stoics and make pain unimportant as we press forward with life? Or is “How my Parents Died” a “vanities of vanities” poem—a warning to just stay home?
CH: Probably not Montana, too cold in the winter and Jim Harrison is dead now anyway. My father did pass when I was in France, and there was a general strike, I couldn’t get back to Paris to fly home, so I almost missed the funeral. Then when I got there, I had left my eulogy at home on my desk, then I stepped in gum. What a day! That poem you cite about my parents, I do grieve sincerely at the end, even as I play with the tension—and I think you have it too—of looking at parental units and thinking, “Surely I have nothing in common with these people. Look how ugly they all are, plus they voted for Trump!”—and yet at the same time, having to admit how much of them is in me, even the N-word, holocaust-denying parts of them. So in the poem if they hypothetically lived larger-than-life lives, and if in reality, that’s the thing they did NOT do, maybe I am just flirting with the fear that I too am small and constrained, and that all my worldly knowledge is just an illusion. At heart I am 90% white trash, with the barest trace of a classical education slopped on like a cheap coat of red paint.
ST: Now that last sentence is funny, and Dante can be funny too, and the way you arranged this new book of poems seems to echo Dante’s Divine Comedy: there’s a hell realm section titled “The History of Hell in America”; a sublunary (beneath the moon) purgatorio section addressing various secrets of the hidden, human heart (“Invisible Terrain”); and a section focused on the heavens (poems devoted to planets and moons brought together under the title, “Escape Velocity”). Was Dante in your thoughts when placing them in this arrangement? And did you settle on the title, Partially Excited States, in part because it sounds a bit like paradiso—or am I giving this book a far too Catholic overlay? Was the title no more mysterious than say, at the time it occurred to you, you were watching Curb Your Enthusiasm?
CH: I hate that show and you only mention it to annoy me, I am sure. The last third of the book, the part after the journey to hell, goes from Mercury to Venus to Earth and on out past Pluto, very directly and linearly, and as with the end of 2001 (which I saw as a child at the Cinerama Dome), it wants to join the stars. We are reborn at the end, or at least we get in line to do the ride all over again. That third section is the ejectimenta from a failed project about all 177 moons of the Solar System; that it works at all is more luck than skill, since I tried to put those pieces in about a thousand different orders. I am still not sure I got the pace right. I do though think that a good book needs an invisible structure, even if it’s based on intuition and rolling a ten-sided die.
ST: In this collection, you have a poem (“Magazine Tiger, Harper’s Bazaar”) that appears to flip roles played by tiger and lamb in William Blake’s “The Tyger.” In Blake’s poem, the tiger is a symbol of fire and experience, terrifying, while the lamb is white and innocent (“Did He who made the lamb make thee?”). But in your poem you have humans that are terrifying and a tiger that is innocent, taking on qualities of Blake’s lamb, even being nursed like a little lamb: there’s “this lady…bottle-feeding a baby white tiger.” The baby tiger is encircled by the human world, which consists of coarse lusts, capitalist greed, superficiality, and the machinery of an advertising photo shoot—a real hell realm, which you describe. Yet even as the tiger has been encircled and dominated by the human environment, the poem ends with a dramatic panning-out to a yet larger, Inferno-like encirclement: “The world waits patiently before / crushing us into powder with the immense weight / of its beauty and indifference.” Is that baby powder? Have we hit an iceberg? Have we moved beyond mere innocence to experience, and into Camus’ realm of the absurd, the poem functioning as a kind of myth of Sisyphus for environmentalists? Or is that crushing to powder not a punishment at all, but the shock of the new: larger nature waiting for us to unplug from narrower dramas and actually notice, really notice, the sublime and surprising power of each moment, however indifferent it happens to be to our own selfish and self-absorbed existence?
CH: I wish I could have a dollar for every allusion you make on your blog and then I could retire early. As for Blake’s tyger, that’s the most widely anthologized poem in English supposedly, and as such, it’s hard to escape its driving trochaic beat. What modern writer hasn’t internalized its rhythms and its dichotomies? In my case when I speak of the indifference of the world I am being a modern skeptic: dinosaurs come, dinosaurs go, and we want to be important, yet we are not—not as a species, and certainly not as individuals. And the power of the primal woman, the allure of sexuality, that’s in the text too: on the imaginary set (though it is a real ad, my set is imaginary), I make the gaffers and grips all willing to be walked over by the model, so enthralled are they by woman as Siren. It doesn’t have to be a woman: sexuality more generally, so it could be a young male model who captivates and seduces. We as consumers are kept on a choke chain, same as the tiger, which is sedated and leashed, and yet the tiger is sexuality, ready to devour us. To quote one of my own lines in another book, if you could sleep with the most beautiful person in the world, think how ugly you would feel—which might be reason enough to do it.
ST: In “Sunrise on Mercury,” you contrast your father’s passion with your own reserve: “My own wounds / I have learned to tap with a little metal spigot”—a wonderful image of ink tapping the music of your words into a journal. And such lines also feel very much like the Buddhist poet, Gary Snyder, as when he writes in “Riprap” (1965):
Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks
placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way,
This would seem to be the map you’ve followed in your new book—indeed, in all of your books. And yet, though you have a Buddhist’s eye for control and precision, lingering on details, collecting your stones—you don’t quite have the Buddhist’s patience for holding still like a stone. Would you describe yourself as a rolling stone; a rolling Buddhist; a Buddhist on the run (akin to Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run”)?
CH: Can somebody tell me what the band is on the run from? That song came out when I was in middle school and I still don’t understand it. Spigot and tapping is a maple tree image: how one gets the syrup is to tap a spike into the tree and slowly, slowy the sap leaks out into the attached bucket. As for the great Gary Snyder, he blurbed my first book. I am not in his league in terms of craft or political cachet, but he’s another poet whose rhythms are inside me deep as blood pulse.
Yet I write wider lines than he usually does, with a faster rhythm. What can I say? He’s a good Buddhist and I risk a speeding ticket every time I get in the car.
Two stories: one, I was at an eco rally once, waiting for Ed Abbey to speak, and it was at a fairground, on the lawn, and I was so bored, so antsy. Speaker after speaker, many quite good (Simon Ortiz). But I had no patience, so I pulled the grass, I tried to look up skirts of passing hippie chicks, I stabbed sticks into the lawn and made small forts. One fellow though some rows ahead of me sat perfectly still, cross-legged and present, attending to everything. No fidgeting. It was of course Gary Snyder. I played frisbee with his kids. Later when he was supposed to read there was a thunderstorm and the power went out. We went into a barn and sat on hay bales while he read by kerosene lantern. You think, “Okay Jesus, take me now, it will never get any better than this.”
ST: In your poem, “The History of Hell in America,” you write, “To be American is to be eccentric, preaching / to 30,000 like Aimee Semple McPherson / or else building vast networks of railroads / in your basement…” And in “On the Island of the Not-So-Broken Poets” you defend the incorporation of facts into your poetry against another poet, your friend Kate Gale, who says to you, “facts are overrated.” I can’t help but hearing in the voice of Aimee Semple McPherson and Kate Gale dark prophecies of the Trump era, and this is your first book of poetry to come out in the Trump era. You’ve written on politically charged themes before, such as your historical meditation on Hiroshima (The Half-Life of Salt: Voices of the Enola Gay), and so do you suppose Trump will begin to creep into your poetry over the next several years, invading your art? Or do you think you’ll exercise your will not to include him, as one might decide to swear off, well, cussing?
CH: He-who-shall-not-be-named has become a thing for all of us, just as the Great Depression was a thing for your dad and mine, or the Vietnam War for that generation. I can’t be bothered to write anti-Trump screeds though. Just wouldn’t be an interesting text. I assume any writer working now will have to deal with him / his followers / the triumph of ignorance, at least indirectly. How that will manifest itself, too soon to say I think. It may be fifty years before we can fully weigh the consequences of the moment. Combat experiences in World War I influenced Tolkien in his descriptions of Mordor and yet the Dead Marshes or other quasi-Somme-like battlefield scenes did not fully reach the general culture until Peter Jackson made the film version of Lord of the Rings. The malignance of this present era may not be fully seen until some opera cycle on Mars explores it 100 years from now.
ST: There’s far more of play than politics in your new collection. Poem titles include apolitical subjects like the following: “Street Trees of San Francisco” and “The Life of Jasper Johns.” These are gorgeous poems, and don’t need justification beyond themselves, and many such poems were written in the 20th century in the midst of collective traumas. But poetry anthologies of twentieth century witness, like Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness (1993), edited by Carolyn Forche, remind us that poets of the previous century also spoke to collective traumas as they occurred—from Soviet gulags, to the Holocaust, to the war in Vietnam. In our own time, what is the future shelf life for a poem about, say, the trees of San Francisco? Will such a poem, a decade from now, seem anachronistic if the public realm goes dramatically south? Is it to some degree irresponsible for poets not to write at least some explicitly political poetry in times like these? Does, for instance, the stand-off between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un not yet merit the sustained attention of poets?
CH: All life, all language merits our attention. We’ve been mad at North Korea before, and they at us. No news there. And I shouldn’t say this, but I did go to hear Carolyn Forche when she was first getting promoted as the Next Liberal Thing, and while I don’t doubt her sincerity, there was an unexamined easiness to her condemnation of Central American violence. It’s like saying “child abuse is bad!”—well, sure, duh. But how do we deal with it? What are the causes? Those are much harder questions. She was good at shock value. Robert Peters said she was only famous because she was so beautiful. An ugly person could not have become a spokesperson for a cause as she did. In any case, be wary of agendas and didacticism. Writing an anti-Trump poem may make the author feel like resistance has happened, but come on. It doesn’t really do any good, does it? Even a bumper sticker reaches a wider audience than a poem.
ST: The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko died in April of this year, his most famous poem being “Babi Yar,” a poem about the murder of 33,000 Jews in Kiev over a two-day period in 1941. The subject invites our lingering attention and sobriety, but Yevtushenko’s own writing about it perhaps not so much, for he was born in 1933 and didn’t actually experience Babi Yar. Instead, he wrote a poem about it in 1961, while still in his twenties, and at a level that reads (at least in translation) as more sentimentality and outrage than actual witness. By contrast, whenever I read a poem of yours, I tend to come away with the sense that you’ve earned whatever sentiment you’ve expressed; you did the requisite homework and actually went physically to the site you were writing about. Even with a poem like “Street Trees of San Francisco,” I have no doubt that you never cheated, just Googling images of trees in San Francisco and writing about them. You went there. You studied the trees. You lingered and thought about them. You made the details matter, and you confronted their matter (their material existences) head-on. So in a sense, though visiting the site, would you say that Yevtushenko didn’t quite earn the right to write “Babi Yar” in the way that he did, or is this too harsh a judgment, speaking ill of the too-recently-dead?
CH: Just to fess up, there’s a lot of pseudo fact or misplaced fact in that poem about trees: Bristlecone Pines only live in the Great Basin, in just a few mountain ranges, not in San Francisco, but I hoped everybody would see that. They are not street trees: they take 5,000 years to grow. Ah, woe is me, even my irony isn’t ironic. But it is true, I have done pilgrimages—in Poland I went to Treblinka, the Nazi death camp site, went there alone on a cold afternoon as sleet turned to snow and sadness filled me right up to my eyebrows. In Tibet I was allowed into the monastery that is closed to foreigners. Blah blah blah. And I know my trees, yes of course, and have published on them more seriously, as in the Heyday anthology LAtitudes, when I wrote about the trees of Los Angeles. Climbed them, smelled them, licked them, planted them, bought a small library of books about them. I live in terror of the inauthentic, which makes me a true Romantic in the most cliché way. In San Joaquin Marsh there are five oak trees, “Hood Grove,” trees that I planted and kept alive bucket by bucket. White-tailed kites nest there.
ST: In being a Californian and calling yourself “a true Romantic in the cliché way,” do you put the two together and find yourself gravitating toward, and influenced by, the poetry of the ever nature-attentive Robinson Jeffers (also a Californian, also typically classed a Romantic throwback, blowing off with indifference the politics of his time and the modernism of Eliot and Pound)? Jeffers’s most famous poem is perhaps his manifesto, “Shine, Perishing Republic,” content to let America burn its way through empire, decline, and “the mould of its vulgarity” while, along with his children, he heads for the hills and (presumably) Tor House. Some lines from one of his poems (“Birds”) recalls for me what seems to be the project of your own poetry:
Needs multitude, multitudes of thoughts, all fierce, all flesh-eaters,
Bright hawks that hover and dart headlong…
CH: If I say that I find Robinson Jeffers tedious then people will accuse me of wanting to club the baby seals or eat hard-boiled condor eggs for breakfast, but I just find myself annoyed, not inspired, whenever I go back to his collected poems—maybe we could call it the collected doilies and buttercups—and for me, it’s hard to believe he was born in the same generation as Hemingway, Stein, Pound, John Dos Passos, or even e.e. cummings. Robert Hass speaks of him respectfully so I keep thinking it must just be me (it HAS just to be me), but jeez—such long, droopy lines, like pasta that has been cooked at a full boil for forty-five minutes. “Clamorous” as a word choice? He reads like a hippy dippy version of the worst of Thoreau’s poetry, and trust me, Thoreau was a really bad poet before he became a really good prose writer. I’ve had three chances to tour Tor House and have yet to take my cod liver oil and go do the pilgrimage. Each time instead of that I just went whale watching or fossicked around in the tide pools. Jeffers’s nature feels too much like he wants it to be cap-N “Nature,” and not actual ecological nature. Remember that anthrax is nature. Bubonic plague is nature.
ST: How about, then, San Francisco Renaissance poet, William Everson (Brother Antoninus), who Kenneth Rexroth loved? In the twenty years since his death, I think he has been wrongfully ignored. For me, he’s always been the real, complicated deal. I love lines like these (“Fog Days”): “Only the cedars do not tire of fog; / They drip patiently through days, / Gathering mist and letting it fall.” And from “Year’s End”: “I sit in the northern room, in the dusk, the death of a year / and watch it go down in thunder.” I’m guessing he’s a bit too religious and philosophical for your taste, and you might hate him. Just curious. Can you put in a good word for Brother Antoninus? He was, at minimum, a devoted letterpress printer, which surely you can appreciate.
CH: Again this is where you and I read differently—you’re more interested in content, and, to some extent, the genteel expression of ideas, while for me it’s craft and the line, taking risk, who influences whom. It has to do with what poetry does for me as a working writer. So of course Everson is charming and readable and you and I and he could share a pot of herbal tea and some organic orange slices, and all of us pass a very pleasant morning. You could come to the meeting fresh from a yoga class, with copies to have him sign that you bought at the thrift store and are toting around in a hemp bag. But to me (and most active writers?), he no longer feels essential, perhaps because his poetic practice is ever-so-slightly generic. If you wanted to think about the 20th century in terms of technical changes in poetry, he’s not an author one would study in order to watch the line evolve and to hear persona played with, or even to be wowed by the flash and bang of language. Yet for you, his congruence with your political ideology adds to his charm. That’s fine—that is a perfectly valid reason to go to the poetry buffet. I wouldn’t put him on a syllabus though, not unless we were doing a very very thorough review of the San Francisco Renaissance.
As for the letterpress, the lure and love of the hand-made lives on today; of my own books, the one I am fondest about is the one that was released just in an edition of fifty, the one with art by Christine Mugnolo titled 25 Tigers. It is an accordion-fold book; as soon as you finish one side, it takes you back around to the other side, infinitely. No more copies are available, making the few extant versions some kind of very, very minor saint’s relic.
ST: How about a contemporary California poet, the USC English professor Dana Gioia? Perhaps you’ve assigned his literature textbooks to classes, as I have, but do you have an opinion of him as a poet? I find him impressively attentive to detail, including the subtleties of the modern soul (what it means to live with not knowing, etc.). He’s someone people might well be reading a half century from now, especially if one is Catholic.
CH: First of all, in my world Mr. Gioia can do no wrong, simply in terms of services rendered to the Republic. First he saved Jell-O and after that, he saved the NEA. Go, Team Gioia! He is an interesting writer because he uses rhyme and often writes about direct life in a very accessible, un-French-theory way. He has a connection to the high desert, though he may not know it, in that he championed the once-unfashionable Kay Ryan, who also writes in rhyme and with deceptive simplicity. She grew up in Rosamond by Edwards Air Force Base (home of the “right stuff”) and went to Antelope Valley College, then much later became Poet Laureate, in part due to his sponsorship. If you can hear him read, he has a beautiful speaking voice—sort of like a cross between Morgan Freeman and Dan Rather. I was supposed to introduce Dana Gioia at a major event, but I turned it down in order to be a good spouse. My wife, Abbey Hood, was giving a reading across town at the exact same time, so I forfeited my Gioia gig in order to be in the audience and support her. (She was pretty good, too! Shout out to Catamaran magazine for setting that up, and to Hennessey and Ingalls for hosting it.) Will he be read in 50 years? All those predictions always turn out to be wrong. Even Emerson misjudged Thoreau, thought Mr. T was wasting his time keeping ultra-detailed nature journals instead of being an abolitionist or public speaker. You are optimistic though, even to ask: apparently you think people will be reading anybody in 50 years. Let’s hope so, even if it is just Robinson Jeffers.
ST: Speaking of the 1850s and just past it, given her distance from the Civil War, was it a good thing (in retrospect) that Emily Dickinson never wrote about the Civil War? Was it better for her poetry that she focused on what she knew—her garden, etc.? Given her privilege (the daughter of a Congressman), and the way she lived, could she have written, in your view, an honest poem about the Civil War—and if so, what would she have had to do?
CH: Oh I dunno, I think she was writing about the war the whole time: loss and dismemberment is in there so much. I don’t just mean poem 444, written we think in 1862, which starts out “It feels a shame to be Alive— / When Men so brave — are dead.” That’s conventional piety that she was just trying out to see how it sounds. Not that, but in all the little gaps and losses that so enchant us and yet defy explication… that gap between syllable and sound that she mentions, there is an awareness of the brevity of life in all of it, and that can’t just have come from the regular deaths and infant mortalities that were part of 19th century life. She was too attuned to the music of the spheres not to wince a little each time the Death Star nuked another Alderaan.
For my money, the best Civil War poem is Charles Olson, “Anecdotes of the Late War.” As he says, Jay Gould got rich, “while Joe Blow got swap / in the side of the head.”
ST: You have a reference or two to Buddhism in your book, and some references to Native American culture and Greek mythology—but though you’ve been to India on numerous occasions, no Hindu gods get a cameo here, so I’ll ask a parting question in the name of two of them: Shakti (the god of energy) and Lila (the god of play). So many writers and artists struggle with depression and addiction, ruining body and mind at a young age. How do you maintain the energy, playfulness, optimism, and discipline you do for getting so much work, travelling, and writing done?
CH: Strike me dead and burn my library card if I am a liar, but I am done being suicidal, I am done with bad relationships, I am done with boring meetings (ever notice how often I am on my laptop at work?), done with all the dross and slag of everyday bullshit. Life is too short not to be giddy with the pleasure of all the good stuff. I am like some manic hummingbird now. Besides this book, I am publishing two more books this year, the other prize-winner (a book of experimental fiction, with art plates by Christine Mugnolo, titled Mouth), and a field guide to birds coming out from Heyday. They both are at the printers as we speak. Next year I have two more nature books coming out plus there’s a new poetry manuscript in contest circulation. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.
It may seem like too much but let’s face it, I only have 30 or 40 years left to live, maybe not even half that, and fuck it, in that case I am going to jet flower to flower and hog up all the nectar I can slurp into my slobbery mouth. I want to be like Issa (or at least Issa as translated by Robert Hass). This is the only time I approve of exclamation points in poetry:
on a naked horse
in the pouring rain!
Yeee-haw. Gallop faster, you old nag, gallop faster!
The hate that dares not speak its name. If this doesn’t look like Nazi Germany in the 1930s, then what is it? And at the University of Virginia. And around a statue of the greatest humanist of the Enlightenment, our third president, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson would have despised these coarse and loathsome barbarians–but our current president, the 45th president, clearly signals sympathy and solidarity with them. From Trump to this moment, the Republican Party, its billionaire donors, and Fox News have unleashed a tiger of populist fascism into America’s public square. This is the fruition of an appalling year-and-a-half. Our country, founded as an Enlightenment republic of laws and rational deliberation, and of democratic solidarity with all of humanity, has been hacked. Many hundreds of thousands of Americans gave their lives in battle to defeat the Confederacy and Nazism, and many millions more made other sacrifices to overcome them, yet here we are in the 21st century with a president clearly in visceral sympathy with Confederates and Nazis. Did 45% of Americans really vote for this? If this image does not animate the apparently bare majority of sane Americans still remaining in this country to resistance and counter-action, what possibly could? Have we all finally had enough yet?
“There is nothing so fretting and vexatious, nothing so justly terrible to tyrants, and their tools and abettors, as a free press” (Samuel Adams in 1768).
However tense we may be with Trump as president, our republic is still functioning and we’re at peace. Yet something isn’t right, is it? One of its core values–the freedom of an oppositional press–is clearly under assault.
Because a full-on, Putin-style takeover of America is still in the cards with this president, and Trump’s Twitter GIF of him taking down CNN forecasts it.
We’re one Reichstag fire away from this Trump take-down.
By this time next year, we may find ourselves whispering under our breath Shakespeare’s line, “all that is solid melts into air.”
That line will take on an especially horrific character if Trump’s Reichstag fire is an exchange of nuclear weapons between himself and Kim Jong Un.
So the question isn’t whether our press freedoms, our Constitution, and the separation of powers will hold-up under Trump for a couple of years in peace time, but in war.
A major war, perhaps with nuclear weapons, is the sort of crisis that a free press is being softened-up for right now. The knock-out blow on press freedom will come, not in peace, but in war.
Trump’s video is thus as telling as when Hitler announced publicly that war between the great powers would mean the extermination of Jews from the continent of Europe. Trump’s not articulate. He’s not going to speak his intentions that directly and explicitly. But he’s going to post a GIF that symbolizes them. And that’s what he did.
In that GIF, Trump has now announced that he means to conduct a mauling from behind of the press–and when freedom of the press goes, the rest of the republic will follow.
So the video is not humorous, it’s literal. It’s psychologically telling. Trump’s instinct is to distract, then maul and dominate.
It’s thus plausible that sometime over the next three years Trump will gather Putin-like powers to himself in the following manner: first, he’ll maul Kim Jong Un or Iran, initiating a first-strike on one of them, perhaps with nuclear weapons, bringing on a major global crisis. Then he’ll act on his domestic enemies, conducting a rapid-fire take-down of the press (federal marshals shutting down The New York Times for leaks or “treason,” shooting or disappearing a few prominent journalists, etc.). From there he’ll consolidate power, ultimately crippling the separation of powers and ending free elections.
At that point it will be Trump’s America. He’ll own us. He’ll do exactly as he pleases. But it will all be achieved in crisis, not peacetime.
The summer of 2017 is in the eye of the storm. It’s calm, we tell ourselves. Trump’s not effective as a peacetime president. He can’t get anything done. He’s therefore harmless.
That’s our mistake. We shrug at his antics, failing to marshal organized, serious resistance to him in peacetime, focusing on distractions, and turning our backs on him.
Then we get hit.
That’s what Trump’s Twitter GIF means. He’s forecasting his modus operandi for how he means to deal with the press in a time of crisis or war. He intends to soften-up his enemies with distractions, then maul and dominate them. We’ve been warned.
It’s always comforting to (seemingly) settle hard questions in thirty seconds. But as a matter of logic, if space-time is the condition for existence, and existence is bound up with space-time (as Einstein proposed), then in what sense could God possibly exist, think, or act outside of space-time?
The very concept of being is itself entangled in questions surrounding space-time. So the problem with someone saying that God exists, thinks, and acts outside of space-time is in definition. What does it mean to say that something “exists” outside of space-time, or that something “thinks” or “acts” outside of space-time?
Because thinking and acting are processes, thinking and acting necessarily require space-time as a condition for their functioning. One’s thoughts shift in relation to space-time; one’s actions shift in relation to space-time. So when someone says that God exists, thinks, and acts, making a world, she or he must be using the words “exist,” “think,” and “act” in a manner that is very different from their conventional use. But by shifting the meaning of the words without redefining them to the new context, the person essentially talks gibberish. It’s akin to calling God “good.” In what sense is God “good” after having let the Holocaust happen?
If skeptical questions surrounding God’s existence and relation to the cosmos were as easily slapped down as religious apologists so frequently imply, then (one would think) the geniuses of the past several hundred years–from Spinoza to Stephen Hawking–would not have puzzled over space and time quite so intensively, and drawn such starkly different conclusions about what it means to “exist.” In a cosmos where God isn’t talking, the more honest responses to the question of God’s existence are “I don’t know” and “Define God.”
Clarity. A must-view, short video from Vox surveying some of the political science data on authoritarianism and its relation to Trump. A really excellent summary.
[T]he notion of an American citizen going to jail for a nonviolent political protest is utterly antithetical to what this country is all about. It is a disgrace. Officer Coronado is a disgrace for arresting her. The prosecutor is a disgrace for charging her. The jurors are disgraces for convicting her. Add that to the optics … a government with, at the moment. a bit of an authoritarian bent, in a hearing to confirm our top law enforcement official (who arguably has authoritarian tendencies of his own), allowing a person to be taken into custody, and then the pressing of charges. And now Fairooz faces actual jail time? That is not the image of an America guided by the Enlightenment.
A hijacking. A Putin-like coup. Is this where it’s going? The below quote from Yale Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder is the most chilling I’ve run across since the firing of James Comey. It clearly articulates exactly what is at stake: “My Russian friends refer to agencies like the FBI as siloviki. The agencies that use force. For Trump to build an authoritarian state in the USA, the FBI must cease to be a police agency that investigates according to law, and become a top-down instrument of force: siloviki.”
God gave me a rose.
And God is love.
The rose made me.
Sneeze. I have
Asthma. The rose
Me in hospital.
That can’t be right.
If God is love.
And gave me a rose.
And anticipates all.
So God wanted
Me in hospital.
To show me love.
I would have
Done it differently.
God hates clearly.
Or does not exist.
I chanced upon a rose
And it meant something.
Best explanation vs. ad hoc explanation. A sign that you may not be seeking the best theory surrounding the truth of a matter, and instead protecting a favored theory—one you want to be true over all others—is if you’re doing a lot of ad hoc reasoning in response to objections to it. We might call this “ad hoc-ing.” Ad hoc is Latin for “for this explanation or moment only” or “add here for a special purpose,” as when a business or bureaucracy forms an ad hoc committee to address an unforeseen situation. Ad hoc reasoning is deployed in, as it were, unanticipated or emergency intellectual situations; situations where a thesis or claim has failed to foresee an important objection or is at an impasse. When you engage in ad hoc explanation, you’re trying to save a favored thesis from pointed and skeptical questions—or new and disconfirming data or competing theses—by seat-of-the-pants rationalizing that cannot be generalized to other theses of the same type: “My psychic powers failed today because the audience had too many doubters in it.” “UFOs exist, but they never land on the White House lawn because they prefer not to be seen.” These explanations save the theses in question (the claims that psychic powers and UFOs are real), but at the expense of adding additional claims to them (psychic powers are real plus they don’t work in the presence of doubters; UFOs are real plus they don’t want to be known).
With the addition of a premise (a claim supporting another claim) to each thesis, the theses become less simple and probable—though still logically possible. In ad hoc premise adding, skeptical questions and new data are not really being anticipated or naturally incorporated into a theory or claim, but deflected with an additional claim or premise that is logically possible, but maybe not subject to empirical verification (reality testing). The ad hoc explanation, with each new premise added to the original claim, thus renders the explanation less plausible. Because there are lots of logically possible ways that the world can be that cannot be verified by evidence—we may, for example, be a dream in the mind of a butterfly—if you are willing to believe things absent evidence, you can engage in a lot of “ad hoc-ing” to save your favored beliefs, theories, explanations, and behaviors from skeptical inquiry and new data. Ad hoc premise generating can also be a sign that someone is arguing in bad faith (their motivations for posing such explanations are something other than the truth or the good).
Occam’s razor. One way to push back against ad hoc rationalizers is to deploy in response Occam’s razor, stated by William of Occam, c. 1324, in this manner: “No more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary.” That is, if you can keep things simple, do it. Don’t multiply premises unnecessarily. Ad hoc explanation’s seat-of-the-pants rationalizing multiplies premises, Occam’s razor shaves them off: “Maybe psychic powers fail in the presence of skeptics—and UFOs don’t land on the White House lawn—because neither psychic powers nor UFOs exist.”
Often the simplest explanation is best. And in some instances, mathematics can be deployed in support of Occam’s razor. As a matter of sheer probability, for example, two inductions being true are always going to be at least slightly less likely than a single induction being true. Each time a premise is added to an inductive thesis, the odds of the combined premises being true must necessarily come down (induction, recall, is about probabilities, not certainties). If, for instance, you’re 90% certain a particular woman is a Democratic voter, 90% certain she’s vegetarian, and 90% certain she signed your friend’s animal rights petition, the odds that you are actually right about all three of these in combination drops statistically to 72% (.9 x .9 x .9 = .72). If you also infer, say, with a confidence of 65%, that she’s a feminist, then the odds that she’s all four of these things come down further still (.72 x .65 = .468 or 46.8%). With just four inferences or assumptions surrounding the woman in question, your odds of being right about her have plummeted to under 50% (assuming you scaled your levels of confidence surrounding each claim accurately in the first place). Occam’s razor helps us get our odds of being right back up—proceeding with caution in the multiplication of premises.
But a caution to simplicity (Occam’s razor) as a criterion for evaluating truth is offered by the mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead: “Seek simplicity and distrust it.” Why distrust it? One reason is that humans tend to find comfort in things they can control, and simple models or explanations might thus serve an emotional bias for control, distorting the complexity of the matter at hand, as in “the politician’s behavior can be summed up in one word: greed.” If you accept this simple heuristic (rule of thumb, model) for the politician’s behavior, you’ve got a lot of control over the processing of news you encounter about him or her, and you don’t have to expend energy thinking about it, but you may judge their words and actions wrongly, or fail to anticipate how their actions might impact your life. Simplicity as a criterion can arrest a deeper inquiry, and can open people up to such things as the availability heuristic (landing on the nearest and simplest rule of thumb, model, or map that comes to mind for explaining a problem or situation). Occam’s razor, used too casually, can signal lazy thinking.
Ideally, the critical thinker wants to locate heuristic rules of thumb, models, and maps that, like Goldilocks in search of her soup, chair, and bed, are just right. (That is, useful, attendant to the right signals in the noise, neither more nor less complicated than necessary.)
Scientific method. If we’re not engaging in self-deception, trying to ad hoc our way across the bridge from logical possibility to the actual truth of a matter, we see that we have a variety of genuinely objective tools ready-to-hand to help us reach warranted belief (logical possibility; the three rules of thought; deduction, induction, and abduction; and Occam’s razor). These are all brought together in scientific method. The scientific method is a process by which one: (1) brings questions to the cosmos (“Why are there so many species of organisms on our planet?”); (2) generates competing theses or theories about it that are capable of falsification (evolution by natural selection versus, say, evolution by the intervention of space aliens who introduce new organisms from their space ship once every ten million years); (3) tests those theories (if natural selection is true, we should see transitional organisms in the fossil record; if alien intervention is true, we should see a marked shift of organisms in the fossil record only once every ten million years or so, and with no intermediate fossils of any sort); and (4) incorporates the best of those theories into a coherent network of other best theories (the biologist’s theory of evolution by natural selection, being the best theory of the two above, should slot coherently into the geologist’s best theory as to the age of the Earth).
Survival of the fittest theories. So scientific method is a sorting process; it’s about discovering survivors after an ordeal of testing, whether in or out of the lab. It’s about the survival, as it were, of the fittest theories (models, maps for navigating reality). These fittest theories are discovered in the way that the best gladiators in the ancient Roman arenas were discovered: by contrivances dreamed up for trial or testing. But in the case of science, these trials are not dreamed up by emperors, but by scientists–scientists deploying scientific method.
Criteria of adequacy. Aside from a theory being testable (a theory that cannot be falsified, or is phrased in such a way that it’s impervious to new data, reality testing, or competition from competing theories is not a scientific theory), by what general criteria is it to be judged in relation to other theories? First, if it’s an interesting theory, scientists agree that is must be fruitful (it makes predictions that pan out; it’s not readily surprised by new data, constantly requiring the addition of ad hoc premises to save it). Second, it has scope (it explains a lot of things, not just, say, one or two things). Third, it slots into our already well-established background knowledge (a theory of biology shouldn’t contradict a well-established theory of physics). Fourth, it’s simple (it doesn’t multiply premises beyond necessity; it incorporates new data in a natural, as opposed to a strained, way). These four, plus testing, can be posed as straightforward questions brought to a theory: Is it testable? Is it fruitful? Does it have scope? Does it accord with our well-established background knowledge? Is it simple? These questions, together, are sometimes called by scientists the criteria of adequacy.
Abduction: reasoning to the best hypothesis. But it’s not enough to be adequate. Even if a theory passes through these five questions with flying colors, it still has to survive the judgment of the sixth and final criterion: Is it the best theory? It can’t be merely a good, interesting, or adequate theory. It needs to be the very best on offer. Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity works, but Albert Einstein’s has greater scope, and so works better. (Sorry, Isaac.) And perhaps someday a better theory of gravity will arrive, overthrowing Einstein’s. Scientific knowledge is always provisional. Galileo’s telescope never comes down.
Fact-value entanglement. In one sense, when working with scientific method, we’re not dealing with values, but facts. Noticing, for instance, that evolution entails competition (a fact) doesn’t tell you whether you should be competitive or cooperative with someone at work (a value). No is demands an ought. It was the philosopher and historian David Hume who first made this important is-ought distinction. But while it is often crucial to maintain this is-ought distinction in reasoning (noticing when one is pointing to a fact—an is—and a value—an ought)—it should also be observed that is and ought are difficult, arguably even impossible, in practice to wholly disentangle. Think, for instance, on the six criteria scientists broadly agree should be deployed to reach the truth of matters, and to lock-down things we can take to be facts. A good theory: (1) should be testable (2) should be fruitful; (3) should have scope; (4) should slot into our already well-established scientific background knowledge; (5) should be simple; and (6) should be the best theory on offer.
But notice all the shoulds in this list. In other words, our criteria for arriving at a thing we take to be a fact are value-laden. If, for example, we value the criteria of adequacy, then evolution is vastly more reasonable than alien intervention in explaining the variety of species on our planet. But why should the truth be a matter readily testable? Why do we value fruitfulness, scope, and coherence? Why should the things we take to be facts be simple, possessing an economy of premises, rather than elaborate and complex, possessing a multiplication of premises? Isn’t it obvious that there are many things that we take to be true that fail to meet one or more of the criteria or adequacy? And so, even if we are convinced that we have adopted the best values and models for generally getting at the truth of matters, we cannot wholly disentangle the processes we have chosen to get at the facts from the facts themselves. The criteria we value for bringing us to confidence that we’ve reached the truth cannot, like a ladder, be kicked to the ground after reaching the roof. If we kick away the ladder, we lose our basis for certainty as to where we actually are. Our values and models condition and infect our facts. We never have a wholly objective, value-free, or unmediated relation to the truth or the good.
That other Pope meat. The human condition, it thus appears, is to strive to reason even as we often fail in reason. So it is that we dwell in uncertainties as best we can, as the poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) observed:
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
The problem. 2018 will mark the 40th anniversary of the collective suicide of the Jim Jones cult. In 1978, over 900 people left California, set up a commune in Guyana in South America, and ultimately died there together, notoriously drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.
How does one make sense of this? How do you get 900 individuals to do something so extreme—and obscene—as to collectively kill their children, their spouses, their other relatives, and themselves? And why, in general, do so many people believe and do such weird things?
Critical thinking and rhetoric. Perhaps what happened at Jonestown can be demystified—at least a bit—by thinking about the nature of critical thinking and rhetoric. We live, after all, in a culture saturated with messages—everybody’s trying to sell something—from consumer products, to services, to political candidates, to religions. Like the followers of Jim Jones, we’re all susceptible to being conned, in large and small ways, and being taken-in by messages.
From Josephus to market bubbles. So when I think about Jonestown, my first thoughts go to Josephus—the Jewish historian of the first century CE—who gave us the famous tale of Masada, in which a group of Jews, high on a mountain fortress, held off the Romans, until finally, when their resistance could no longer be sustained, and so as not to be taken into slavery—committed a collective act of suicide. I also think of the collective delusions that have gripped people throughout history, from millennial madnesses to witch crazes; from tulip manias to housing market bubbles. People have long jumped on bandwagons and suspended their critical thinking in fundamental ways in the service of beliefs, greed, and collective projects.
The question is why.
Self-destruction. Think of collective and individual self-destructiveness, and the psychology that underlies self-destructive behavior. In the 40 years since Jonestown, suicide has become an ever-more shocking feature of global culture. Examples range from Japan to England, and include the Heaven’s Gate cult in San Diego. Most virulently, suicide takes the form of suicide terrorism. And even democracies can commit collective suicide, handing their collective wills and the rule-of-law over to the whims of authoritarian, alpha-males. In some sense, Jonestown weirdly marked itself, 40 years ago, as being a canary in the coal mine of our collective unconscious—foreshadowing an era of new and murderous religious and political manias.
But how might we demistify such human self-destructiveness? Why, for example, did so many Americans give Donald Trump the keys to America’s nuclear codes? Do we chalk-up such behavior to imprecisely defined causes, such as collective hypnosis, spell, or magic–or can we get some genuinely rational grasp on this matter? I think we can find rational ground here.
Pleasure and pain, harmony and confusion. To get our heads around human self-destructiveness, it might be best to start with evolutionary psychology. First, we can safely say that human beings have a highly evolved mechanism for seeking pleasure and avoiding pain—and one way this manifests itself is in anxiety reduction. When our environment seems to us in harmony, whole, and safe–and when we seem to understand what’s going on around us–we tend to enjoy a feeling of calm. This is deeply rewarding; it signals to us that we are okay. But when things around us seem out of harmony, confusing, and potentially dangerous, our anxiety-system is aroused, and we seek some way of feeling harmonious, whole, and safe again. Few human beings can live free of anxiety without this feeling that the world around them makes sense—that there is, at some level, meaning and harmony and purpose underlying the world.
Liquid times. Though we long for anxiety reduction, we live in a world that is highly fluid and alienating. It’s full of big cities, technologies, forces, and complexities that we can scarcely comprehend. The internet, for example, is larded with contradictory currents of information that resist harmonization or full sense. And the cosmos itself is packed with mysteries that resist our sense-making—as when our loved ones die or we try to contemplate the vast emptiness between the stars.
The world, in short, is, to echo Wordsworth, “too much with us.” The more we think about it, the more confusing and scary it can become. It’s a place where change is constant; where stability is not the norm.
Daddy, daddy. For a time, in our infancy and childhood, we may have had a strong father who guarded our innocence, protected us, and gave us simple and calming answers when we had questions about the world. But the invariable movement from innocence to experience, from childhood to adulthood, leaves all of us in a state of Mel Brooks-like, high anxiety. And because we are social animals, and there is strength in numbers. It makes sense for us to join a group where the individuals in it will look after one another as brothers and sisters. And so it hardly seems surprising that people might flock to religious, political, and social movements that promise to reduce anxiety, to make sense of the world, and to bring us into a place of safety, wholeness, and harmony.
And these movements are not likely to be terribly rational because reason takes a great deal of effort, both intellectual and in terms of discipline. To remain in the realm of the rational, you have to research things, and think about things, and read books, and live with your anxiety. To be reflective necessarily means you don’t know all the answer yet. And oftentimes reason does not bring you to a harmonious, satisfying, or conclusive answer to your concerns. Indeed, it often raises as many questions as it solves. And so it is extraordinarily difficult for people to live genuinely rational lives; lives that do not run primarily on oversimplifying cognitive maps and heuristics (rules of thumb). The temptation is to gamble on the easiest, nearest-to-hand, and most emotionally satisfying answers to anxiety-inducing questions.
Advertisers recognize this—and so rarely appeal to reason as such—but offer all sorts of shortcuts to persuasion: flashy colors, attractive images, sing-song slogans, etc. And likewise, religious, political, and social movements engage in similar appeals. Thus, what might at first seem mysterious—how could people follow Jim Jones—actually makes a good deal of sense. Jim Jones came across as someone supremely confident, and with a utopian vision of a better life. He had an authoritarian, father-figure ethos that can be extremely appealing to frightened people. He represented a short-cut to anxiety reduction.
A father for your thoughts. So the reasoning runs as follows: If I follow the father figure, I don’t have to think. My anxiety will be reduced, and he will lead me to the Promised Land (however that gets defined). If I join Jim Jones in his vision, I will have a community of brothers and sisters to look after me, and for me to love and look after in return. I’ll sing with them; I’ll dance and work with them. I’ll never be alone or lonely. The world will make sense, and life will have a purpose.
Family dynamics. But of course, once you enter into a relationship with a father and a family, all of the psychological dynamics of childhood come into play: desire to please the father, guilt at disappointing the father, and peer pressure to conform to the norms of the family. And once you are in such a dynamic, it’s tricky to get back out, for there are all sorts of ways that the group has for suppressing your legitimate questions and doubts. You sing each day harmoniously together, enforcing your connection to the group; you listen to the same sermons of the father-figure; you go out together and tell others about your way of life. And by telling others how great your life is, sharing your testimony, you reinforce the story for yourself.
And when you are in a group where miracle claims are being made, it becomes a bonding mechanism to solder you to the group. Miracles seem to be heaven’s warrant for the very existence of the group. How can you leave a group that heaven is showering with such powers? And how can the group be wrong if miracles are happening in the midst of it in the first place?
Ganfalloons and the stages of commitment. Another thing binding one to such a group is what the novelist Kurt Vonnegut calls ‘granfalloons.’ These are cultural markers that seems to make people imagine they have more in common than they do (as in all wearing similar clothes). Still another thing binding you to the group are the stages of commitment. The more you give to a group or family, the less you want to admit to yourself that you are wrong and over-committed. So each step of commitment may be small compared to the last step, but each step brings you, in an ever more extreme fashion, into the group. It’s like a frog in hot water. You might end up reaching a point where collective suicide is a relatively small step, given how far you’ve already come with the group.
The sacrifice of minds before bodies. So as we reflect in 2017 and 2018 on what might seem to be incomprehensible and rare–a mass suicide of over 900 people 40 years ago–it is in fact actually an all too human occurrence. The bodies of large groups of people may not be sacrificed en mass, but their minds might be. There are groups all around us in which the price for belonging amounts to the suicide of the critical faculties. Jonestown is an extreme example of the human ability to be swept-up in movements that are hyped, utopian, father authoritarian, and function as a kind of extended family. Jonestown is remarkable for the sacrifice of bodies, but all around us are groups that daily lift up on altars of sacrifice, and in vastly larger numbers, human minds.
Rhetoric and critical thinking. In classical rhetoric, the central appeal is not to the emotions (pathos), but to reason (logos), and Aristotle’s rhetorical invention categories—his topoi—are heavily weighted to rational appeals (appeals to logic, evidence, comparisons, definitions, examples, and so on). You can have everything else going for you rhetorically—an interesting topic, thesis, and genre; an engaging title and opening paragraph; a tone and style that matches your audience’s sensibilities; and a thoughtful arrangement of paragraphs—but if you don’t reason well, your ultimate success will remain in doubt. Like poor grammar, poor reasoning clangs to the ear, leading the reader to say no outright to your statements or to murmur, “That doesn’t sound right.” Benjamin Disraeli once cast shade on another parliamentarian by saying, “I was with you, sir, till I heard your argument!”—suggesting that his fellow parliamentarian was doing his own argument damage by supporting it poorly. It is not always enough to appeal to an audience’s existing desires and prejudices, but to support your claims with good reasons. Thus argumentation entails the study of critical thinking.
Critical thinking. To write clearly is to think clearly, and to think clearly is to think critically. Critical thinking is the attempt to arrive, as nearly and objectively as possible, at the truth of a matter. In 1946, George Orwell, the author of the novel 1984, wrote an essay for London’s Tribune titled, “In Front of Your Nose,” in which he laid out a theory for why critical thinking is so hard: “In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality.” It’s a funny observation, and it rests on a powerful syllogism (two premises accompanied by a conclusion): (1) our deepest hopes and fears lead our reason; (2) they rarely match reality; therefore, (3) our conclusions rarely match reality. In the same essay, Orwell also writes the following: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” In these two sentences, Orwell provocatively suggests that the difficult part of critical thinking is not the act of concentrated attention to a problem, but of reducing subjectivity and increasing objectivity. The struggle is to never look away; to face the truth without, Oedipus-like, plucking out one’s eyes.
Where to start objective thinking? Is there a First Idea that can assist one in reaching objectivity as reliably as in mathematics; something that can function as a North Star for reasoning, conferring on it powers of clarity for writing, and empowering individuals to begin a process of confidently and steadily thinking out issues for themselves, arriving at conclusions it would be unreasonable to ever doubt?
Well, no. Or, if there is, there’s never been a broad consensus as to what that First Idea might be, exactly. Perhaps if we agreed on that First Idea, we’d all reach the same conclusions—but then again, maybe not. For example, Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas, Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and Protestant philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, all powerful minds and careful logicians (studiers of logic), started their reasoning with the ultimate Big Idea—God. In each of these thinkers’ thought, God functioned as the ground of being and for thought—and yet they did not reach the same conclusions as to what this Big Idea implied for the nature of their existence and what should be regarded, ultimately, as the true, the good, and the beautiful. Though they attempted to reason to a broader certainty in life by taking God’s existence as their First Certainty, they nevertheless ended their processes of reasoning in different places.
One reason for their diversity of opinion has to do with definition. None of these men defined God in exactly the same way, so they didn’t really start their arguments in exactly the same place. As with the butterfly effect in chaos theory (even a small flutter of a butterfly’s wing in Asia can make exact weather prediction on a particular date six months later in California uncertain), so a small difference in definitions or premises can have largescale effects for ultimate conclusions. Exact starting and stopping points for arguments are crucial to notice.
Noticing starting and stopping points. Oftentimes the Oz curtain of a person’s way of thinking, if it appears mysterious, confusing, or suspiciously unsupported, can be drawn back by simply asking, “Why did this person start his argument exactly where he did, and why did he stop it exactly where he did?” If this question cannot be inferred or explicitly answered to your satisfaction, it may be because the author has misread you, his audience, expecting you would treat his points of departure and conclusion as your points of departure and conclusion, granting his opening and closing claims as in need of no additional justification because you are, at those points, at yes with him. (Recall that rhetoric is about getting to yes with an audience.) Perhaps he assumes that you have the background knowledge he does, and are part of his community, sharing his general sensibilities, assumptions, and beliefs, knowing where questions can generally start and stop without a lot of justification or explanation. But perhaps you’re not part of his community. Perhaps you don’t share his way of talking about things, and so you’re unwilling to start and stop arguments where he does. If, for instance, you do not take as axiomatic (self-evident; foundational; something not in need of additional argument) that all human beings are created by God and created as equal, as Thomas Jefferson so famously claimed in the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal”), then you are in want of additional convincing. You have not reached yes with this message sender, sharing his premises.
What are premises? Premises are those explicit and implicit claims that support another claim or conclusion. They are the things you assume in argument—and that you hope your audience assumes. An example can be found in any enthymeme. Aristotle called a sentence containing a claim and support an enthymeme: “I didn’t get on the plane because grandma dreamed the night before that it would crash.” An enthymeme includes one premise and one conclusion, but relies on the reader to fill in the second premise: the dropped premise. In this case, the dropped premise is that the dreams of grandmas have predictive power—which is obviously a dubious argumentative assumption, and a nice reminder as to why one should always check a writer’s or speaker’s premises (including one’s own). Putting it more formally, an enthymeme is an argument that leaves the reader to supply the missing premise: “Grandma dreamed the plane would crash [first premise]; grandma’s dreams foretell the future [the dropped second premise]; therefore, I didn’t get on the plane [the conclusion].” Support is about getting to the because of your claim—and an enthymeme achieves this in a single sentence. Any sentence with because in it is an enthymeme (whether it appears at the beginning of the sentence or somewhere in the middle), and any sentence with because in it will have a dropped premise that the writer expects the reader to supply without the writer having to make it explicit.
Circular reasoning and question begging. If the writer means to communicate specifically to you, and yet fails to address your fundamental doubts, requests for clarification, or objections by offering additional and substantial premises, claims, or arguments to bring you into agreement with him, then you can rightly accuse him of circular reasoning or question begging (assuming as true what is not yet agreed on between the message sender and his audience): “How do you know all people are created equal?” “Because God created them that way.” “But how do you know God created them that way?” “Because they’re equal. God would only create people equal.” “But how do you know that?” “I just do.” Round-and-round it might go if no additional, substantial claims are on offer. If, however, the person is not talking to you (that is, if you’re an audience crasher, butting-in on an argument being made to another audience)—and the audience being addressed indeed accepts his initial claims as self-evident—then it’s not really fair to call the starting and stopping points for his arguments circular or question-begging, but as, rather, axiomatic (things neither he nor his audience call into question, such as, say, the reality of human equality, the authority of Jefferson, Buddha, or the Bible, etc.). As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) wryly observed, “Arguments have to stop somewhere.”
But also note that Wittgenstein’s claim itself can be question-begging if you don’t accept it, and he’s talking to you, and nowhere in his writings does he offer further justification for his claim. Question begging is audience dependent: it is question begging from the vantage of whom, exactly? Any explanation or justification might invite an additional flurry of “But why?” follow-up questions from somebody in an audience, as when a child asks a parent why, exactly, the sky is blue, again and again, never satisfied with the parental explanation. If you ignore the “But why?” question, or arrest it with something akin to “Because I say so,” or “Because that’s just the way it is,” you’re carrying on with your argument when premises are unclear to your audience or in dispute. You’re assuming what is, in fact, in question (and thereby begging the question). Begging the question begs a reader or hearer to go with your argument absent additional reasons or evidence; to grant your premises, even if just for the sake of argument.
But let’s say we agree with Wittgenstein; let’s grant him his premise: we’ve all got to start and stop our narratives and arguments somewhere. If so, then where an author begins and ends tells one a lot about what an author thinks can go without saying and when enough has been said—and what the author believes an audience will let him or her get away with. If you can’t say everything—or justify everything—then you’ve got to guess what can safely go unsaid.
I don’t like the phrase “not my president.” I understand the sentiment, but I think it would be a more accurate reflection of that sentiment to say, “not my America.” Trump’s America is not my America in exactly the same sense that Nazi Germany was not Einstein’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy was not Umberto Eco’s Italy. Authoritarianism, Nazism, and fascism may be overlaid onto America, Germany, or Italy, and when a person is imprisoned or dies fighting these overlays, he or she has been imprisoned or died for America, Germany, or Italy.
This thought was inspired by something I read recently of a Jewish woman in Nazi Germany whose dying breath was, “For Germany.” That is, her death was for a vision of Germany that included her–which is the very sort of Germany that in fact exists today.
Those of us in the Trump resistance are keeping alive the torch of America–the America that will once again embrace all of us as equal citizens, with no individual deemed an “enemy of the People” or rendered suspicious for being a journalist or scientist, or for not having the right religious beliefs or skin color, or for being oppositional to presidential or federal power, or for exercising the rights guaranteed in our Constitution and First Amendment.
I like the cover of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America. It shows a symbol of America–El Capitan in Yosemite–overlaid with a Nazi swastika. The swastika is America’s foreign element, not its native element.
We need to remember that in–what shall we call it?–TrumpAmerica.
Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-imposed tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is the tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sepere Aude! [Dare to know!] ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’–that is the motto of enlightenment.