Archive for July, 2012

On writing

July 27, 2012

An alternate title for this blog entry would be, “Why not write autobiographically?”

If you’re a writer, take this advice. Stop trying to be understood. People like your style, and will therefore tolerate your writing when you write about yourself. Otherwise they aren’t actually interested and will take the lines they like best in your writing out of context and twist some of them around to mean something else closer to the way they see things themselves. Or pat you on the head and say “I refute your position, but congratulate you on phrasing it in a pretty way.”

If they tell you to focus on writing what you know from first-hand experience, they’re saying for an ignoramus you have too many pretensions about having relevant social commentary to share, and they want you to scale down the claims to having anything important to say by sticking to misunderstanding your own personal shit since no one really cares whether you understand your own life correctly, as long as your writing style is entertaining.

Hint from

If you intend to refuse to listen, just put on airs of thinking your own opinions are idiosyncratic and biased but give them anyways, and again, make sure they sound clever enough to be quotable. Otherwise you risk being treated as a pompous fool, like most more-qualified expert commentators are anyways whenever they tell people things they don’t want to hear. Nobody cares whether it was Hunter S. Thompson, Journalist or his hard-drinking alter ego in The Rum Diaries who said the only good news story is a call to arms. He said it in a pithy, memorable way and it was close enough to the truth to be worth remembering.

On the other hand, this doesn’t mean you get anything out of bending over backwards to be clever or self-effacing. You’ll end up with your foot in your mouth wondering who you resent for the situation you’re in after all.

For your sanity, keep at least one balls-out rehearsed insult on file for the public figure of your choice, without fear of whether or not it would be tactful to say under whatever circumstances, should an opportunity for delivery arise. If you get that chance, next time you might actually know better. However, if you write with the intent to express affiliation with the underdogs of a social injustice and not strictly to show up their oppressors as unjust, know your enemies among those equally bored but less sympathetic.

Cynics sometimes convey unconvincing allegories about the self-defeating nature of acts of generosity, and this can work even if they rely on repetition as a conditioning strategy, having bullied you into a suggestible state by insisting they are condescending to you for your own good.


This is not difficult to figure out: crazy cat ladies aren’t Good Samaritans come to bad ends, they’re hoarders who will abduct the neighbor’s cat to add to their malnourished collection. There are many straw men like them in our popular mythos, and many arguments propping them up regress into a utilitarian attempt at invoking triage when you bother to argue with the cynic at hand.

Matched tautologies about social justice that contradict each other neatly are excellent ploys for witticisms. A writer can enjoy great flexibility navigating the circular logic these matched pairs describe, or achieve discouraging completeness in a paradox by using them to excess to frighten his audience. Having learned the use of them can make it seem rather easy to sound knowledgeable on short notice, when addressing a topical writing assignment. But that is a misuse of conversational skills that can have questionable effects even in conversation.

But unless the deadline is nigh, don’t assume first impressions are adequate.

Sometimes trying to negotiate a middle ground in correspondence with your editor, between sincere and politically correct, will force you to recognize weaknesses in your original position. It’s easy to learn that if you’re too quick to modify your stated position to suit the audience, you won’t be able to feel like you’re presenting your own point of view honestly, and that attitude can poison whatever you were trying to accomplish by communicating at all. But you can’t reject critical feedback reflexively either just because you see your editor as The Man and the flatterer of “the mob” depending on what he told you to change last.

If your early attempts to explain an evil action start to feel like rationalizing, persist and see if you can break through to more salient explanations with sustained attention to the mystery.


This can seem so indifferent as to attract hostility from casual acquaintances on short notice. It is not considered good conversation off stage.

But for writers, it is not necessarily catastrophic to take a step back and entertain an abstract perspective on the particulars, so don’t look within the events for a reason. Events are coincidences among attempts at acting on reasons, and sympathy with the people holding those reasons doesn’t magically produce an understanding of what in fact has just happened.

And sympathy with the human condition and all its propensities for honest errors doesn’t make rationalizing for everyone you have serious conversations with a good idea. After all, sometimes a villain is in fact trying to be the bad guy.

On beauty and being just

July 23, 2012

The immaterial is only the least common denominator in the world, not the sum of its parts. Yet art has escapist attractions for artists in the way work on it suppresses attention to the difference between the material and the transcendent. Without a striving towards beauty it can seem hard to maintain a will to live, surrounded by indifferent fears that prefer neither risk-taking nor passive resistance.

Yet that attraction and escapist charisma with which beauty as a pursuit overwhelms any other attentional bias is dangerous, too. Of all the visual tropes in The Flowers of War, the musical instrument strings a girl tries to retrieve from outside the safety of a church in a war zone are the most memorable for me, at least apart from the use of the stained glass windows. If even a more lighthearted adventure is not complete without a celebration of beauty worth fighting for, the convention only confirms in what sense there can be something frightful and imposing about an achievement in art itself.

That fear is for the audience, and not the artist purportedly consumed by his preoccupation with that work.

This makes it possible for the appearance of art as such in a drama to feel especially confrontational thanks to the work done by cameras to guide the attention of the audience through a story and its elements, a confrontation that is gendered if adventure and the idea of a damsel in distress are part of the plot.


The effect of art within a feature film can be visual without relying on the introduction of a painting within the frame of a cinema reel, such as the role of theater in Alatriste, or the beauty of graceful swashbuckling itself when staged for camera. These instances are different in effect from staging a play within a play, no matter how aesthetically imposing the feature film’s production design within which other works of art are to be found.

When such a confrontation is gendered the audience quickly becomes self-conscious about the implications its effect seems to entail for the way they live their own lives. But why are appearances so important to us when we memorize many ways of remarking that they are misleading? Eckhart Tolle begins the book A New Earth with a case for beauty as an end in itself rather than a selfish gene’s ploy to seduce a pollinator (flowers) or a mate of its own kind (peacocks, us). The author describes recognizing the beauty of a flower as a way of provoking contemplation of the divine Presence, celebrated in the origin story of Zen and in many other religious traditions.

The argument is startling for omitting and even rejecting the casual Social Darwinism underlying the conceptual structure of platitudes that even modern witticisms cannot be bothered to contest, about the importance of not being deceived by appearances in everyday life. Without ferreting out the Enlightenment naivete about biology and politics in the Social Darwinism of “cognitive bias” concepts used in self-awareness exercises to improve social cognition, this theory of aesthetics barely sounds plausible in informal language because it conflicts on too many levels with conventional wisdom.

Yet it should make sense, and corresponds closely to a long-retained Platonic tradition in literary philosophy. Even so, Platonic idealism about truth and love and beauty feels thwarted in the uses of art to glamorize an edifice of power or an image informed by ideology, that are not scarce in the visual environments of civilization. The more disturbing art commissions of such an elite are stereotypical, in ways that use imposing scale to subvert and co-opt the discomfort and cognitive dissonance when a spectator is torn between recoiling in fear from a tyrant’s way of taking audiences, and receiving art that greets the audience where their own tastes are to be found. Art can be so used, and yet achieve little in its domination of those it confronts on its own terms.


An Imperial Hall commissioned in the 18th century.

Whether or not this “was why” the Alcibiades known to Socrates and infamous locally and in the Platonic tradition struck off the noses of public statues and the tail of a dog without pretense at reasons, there is much skepticism in moral philosophy about the value of art, and the risks it takes in provoking its audience to pay attention to its arguments.

This passage is only a small part of A New Earth, and not an overriding theme of that book, but I singled it out because of how it reminded me of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just. Both texts are convincing but counterintuitive in making arguments about how our apprehension of beauty is related to our ability to conceive of social justice on a more concrete level. Their arguments conflict substantively but also seem to share some space in Venn Diagram logic, and a comparison of the two authors’ descriptions of beauty can be used to describe that space in detail. Perhaps it also describes something intuitive to both authors that is even more convincing than either argument in full.

I’ve developed a tentative way to fit the two authors’ ideas together, using categorical reasoning to compare their descriptions of aesthetic principles and notice how common elements are found. The difference between the arguments in the two books is clear, but they aren’t entirely opposed to each other. Neither one is much circulated in art criticism as a prevailing set of assumptions for scholarship on aesthetics, but there is an intuitive plausibility to each despite their differences.

Eckhart Tolle sees beauty as something that elicits great love and also elevates consciousness by tapping into our fascination with the ethereal and our desire to transcend appearances and perceive the substance of divine Presence. Elaine Scarry sees beauty as an inspiration for justice through explicit analogy between the qualities we single out for aesthetic appreciation (of art or of beauty in nature) and the conceptual components of the idea of justice.

Their arguments can be used to build two contrasting lists of beautiful qualities. The first list corresponds closely to Eckhart Tolle’s theory of what makes a white dove or a crystal beautiful, while the second uses the narrow conceptual areas of overlap between his assumptions and Elaine Scarry’s to build the first list’s conceptual polar opposite.

Typical qualities of a beautiful object (ethereal theory of beauty)

  • lightness / paleness
  • symmetry / singularity
  • stillness / transcendence
  • smoothness / transparency

Atypical qualities of a beautiful object (material theory of beauty)

  • darkness / colorfulness
  • asymmetry / diversity
  • motion / conflict
  • surface complexity / concealed depth

I can think of favorite film moments for depicting each one.

Ethereal theory: Smoke rising in arabesques from an ornate incense burner in front of a bedroom window in Kingdom of Heaven, to the beautiful score composed by Harry Gregson Williams. Though the smoke is in motion, it moves almost vertically and being undisturbed by any breeze suggests the air in the room would actually be oppressively still if it were not too early to be as hot as the desert becomes by midday.

Material theory: Viggo Mortensen’s first entrance in Alatriste, chest deep in water, arms in an asymmetrical position, in dim light. In this scene he will show a scarf that later turns out to be captivating in its own right because it is multicolored in a wonderful way, but in this light its rich colors make it look simply like a handy dark cloth, one apparently valued but not visually striking in its own right.

Ariadna Gil and Viggo Mortensen, Alatriste

Natural beauty might balance elements from both aesthetic theories, whereas ideal beauty combines elements of only one and epitomizes that idea of beauty. Interestingly, much spiritual art (such as cathedral architecture) combines elements of both, so I wouldn’t necessarily assume one is more spiritually relevant than the other. It may be that the distinction between the two possible manifestations of beauty has spiritual significance, and that this significance is easier to appreciate when we perceive both at once.

And what happens when they are joined together? The following pairings of aesthetic and virtuous qualities that seem to share a conceptual basis were inspired more closely by Elaine Scarry’s book.

Qualities of beauty that speak to the idea of justice:

  • proportion / fairness
  • likeness / equality
  • gracefulness / dignity
  • a rhythm being even / a course of action being constant

Each of the aesthetic qualities in this short list represents a point of contact between ethereal and material beauty to me.

  • Proportion can be seen in the sides of a golden rectangle, celebrated in the design of public spaces in Athens and made up of two pairs of lines, symmetrical within pairs but asymmetrical between them, with the difference in length between pairs measured in a carefully rationalized proportion.
  • Likeness is the predicate of political equality, the idea that many discrete individuals with different stations and appearances have one shared identity as human beings, some of whose rights are innate in that identity and not acquired or alienable.
  • Graceful execution of complex movements involves giving them smooth transitions, the same qualities that make public actions dignified (as opposed to panicky capitulations to abrupt shifts in the balance of power, for instance).
  • The continuity in a military band’s rhythm is an expression of controlled forward momentum bringing change but representing the uninterrupted progress of a seemingly permanent force, neither impetuous nor easily deterred, as action in a just cause should be.

I found trying to interpret and apply both theories of beauty at once interesting, but I realize the analogies that can be made here are helped by how easily we can convince ourselves of most metaphors, with a little imagination.

Man vs. nature

July 9, 2012

The main metaphor for nature is not gender, but metaphors as commonplace as nature and gender cross paths often enough to mislead. The feminine aspect of the natural world is popular.

But it wants ornament, despite being doubly confined to the admired pedestal of that which is not for everyday use in life. One can tell this is from one of Tennyson’s satires better if you elide the distractingly vivid “Wind oozing thin through the thorn ..”

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view ..

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,

The pastorale brought to life in symphonies like Creation is a flattery of fairy tales far more violent in their action than a country scene with listeners relieved from mundane indoor chores, the coarse chains of love labors in domestic life, distractedly soaking in the fresh air, exposed and at risk of pneumonia only when they take a walk in dark weather to the full sound and weight of rain, because they could not be persuaded to wait out the weather, they were above persuasion on the day.


Pop culture’s sense of history is similar. Of mass movements we want the stuff of The Chicago Poems, metaphors for mountains, horizons overburdened with stars,

.. the beach where the long push under the endless tide maneuvers ..

.. pageants of war and labor, soldiers and workers, mothers lifting their children ..

Of cities, we want images of artisans, always in action and working as at play in the metals, and someone bigger, also industrious, who works and brawls under the wicked reputation of the city, in smoke, and “dust all over his mouth, laughing .. under the terrible burden of destiny” unselfconsciously. He should not know better than to be remorseless, for he does work hard.

If we are to notice anything in multitudes, we want something less fragile than a crowding of kinds of life in rainforests’ canopies or the liminal subsurface that waits on disturbance, needs the air, but withstands only enough disturbance to bring air below by the breath, by the pocket. The jungle frightens us with long shadows that belie worthless soil underfoot driving all life toward the clouds in search of better nourishment. Response to the soil’s strangling, under the last business cycles of field cultivation, is disdained.

Instead we want simplicity when we imagine great amounts, the idea of an endless supply of any certain thing, and metaphors for rain, constancy, the monotone:

.. the sudden rise and slow relapse
Of the long multitudinous rain.

.. fire and gold of sky and sea,
And the peace of long warm rain.

The suburb with its books of pressed fairies is a complaint, that this flattery was not cunning enough to fool those who can afford to leave the slum, and at a safe distance, plant pasture where nothing comes of growth. They were not fooled out of their boredom with the advantages that make indifference defensible. They are not even committed enough to find boredom melancholy and so succumb to the greater interests of madness.


There’s always violence. Interest pervades the scene of a crime, reanimates the landscape sparsely traveled by birds and feral cattle between the mesas and the scrubby flats beyond a rainshadow, when a stagecoach robbery is to be staged, or a nuclear experiment conducted with stadium seating for secondary hypothesis testing.

A hurricane creek in drylands is a storyteller who knows only outlaw ballads, making miniature rapids in the heat to show up the hikers and outlaws. Even without seawater, far from the nesting grounds of any crocodiles, the white water menaces, never quite too shallow to drown someone. Take Roderic Quinn’s The Fisher.

The mangroves drooped on salty creeks,
And through the dark,
Making a pale patch in the deep,
Gleamed, as it swam, ..

The bream went by, and where they passed
The bubbles shone like beads.


No lost wind wandered down the hills
To tell of wide
Wild waterways; on velvet moved
The silky, sucking tide.

.. stars burned large and still.

The fisher, dreaming on the rocks,
Upon the beaten way,
.. stood entranced, enchained by her

In geologic time, the cross-section of a ridge carved cleanly in relief for paved switchbacks is a record of violent overthrows conducted by faceless giants, detailed in many volumes by John McPhee. Good country for driving.


A mirror carefully staged finds us in the same scene as nature. The same as we always are, only definitely right there in the epic landscape, since the horizon is accessible by a shortcut. There is a trail to the vantage point, you can be seen from below. You can make being seen there look like an accident for camera.

And seeing yourself in the landscape you deferred to as too natural to admit traffic, even your own everyday smile isn’t good enough, so if you cannot convey enough respect for the unconstructed wealth of the opposite of civilization’s accomplished facts, you retreat into another subject.

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,

You stay out of the picture finder’s frame, put certain pebbles in your pockets that come in at least four kinds of brown, remember the other two are reserved for horses you have never met. They were innocently named, ideas “displayed, without intention, in the act” of naming what was there to be mentioned, not shades of brown parsed out with descriptive adjectives in a disaffected struggle “with the communicative significance of words.”

You limit your Christmas letter mementos to uncultivated apples and a still life with driftwood, or a pool that seems uninterested in polishing wood. A pool where a still life can humble the stage manager for trying too hard to include driftwood in the composition, because you can relate to that and would’ve hoped it would look more natural.

Fandom is my inspiration

July 7, 2012

While the Sword of Truth books that inspired The Legend of the Seeker are known for their humorlessness, there is definitely a fluffy side to fandom. But there is serious inspiration too, and a dark side to the sentimental self-indulgence fan art often represents.

Listen for the lyrics hinting at the bittersweet intensity of a shared experience that, for fans, can seem especially one-sided.

But it is futile to call on actors to seek out Rome. Theirs are not those parts, and even fans need to remember it. Mostly they’re just sentimental when they get scared.

“Small things can pit the memory like a cyst:
Having seen other fathers greet their sons,
I put my childish face up to be kissed
After an absence. The rebuff still stuns”

– James McAuley, Because

The blueness of a night, as warning against what can be ascertained by that light, is not prone to “silver glass” treatment in the off screen life of the mind, but in the fan video above, there is an impression of other things more true to life.

In Angela Greene’s depiction of this sort of night, one sees the effect of blue air, agitating darkly, “to loose and grab at the moon.” A woman cries twice,

“but the third call becomes
a frail and exotic sound –
some primitive bird’s perhaps?”

The backdrop in the “object” below greets movement with a like apprehension, from a real tendency to mistake such a night for a portent – specific to the wanderer, a queer feeling that alertness is needed even if dreamtime upholds and seems to hold it in suspension.


The night kind of unusual blueness, when the air is clear and the lack of greater darkness alarming in open woods on slight hills, can almost be heard in the instrumental Blue as the Turquoise Night of Neyshabur as well.

Fan art rarely holds my attention apart from vidding, but in fan videos the sentimental mirror creates a display, if not art of its own kind, that can showcase a response and ascertainment of one viewing of certain film moments that itself can speak to the fan’s experience of diaspora in the imagination, far from the interior of a subject but in that sense far from home.

Read this way, the video above raises a rhetorical question that can be answered with another.

It’s easy to wish a reprieve toward those actors who have already shown their hearts to the mob. Anyone’s time may yet come, and work done is known to fans by being done as well as it will be, and already in hand.

“Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.”

– William Blake, The Divine Image

So they have our love, and our answer. We want to hear from them again, but not because we have not heard them say what they mean and known that we already agree. Somehow, we already have something in common with those whose names we learn at all.