Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011.12.30 — I Ching, Chomsky, Poetry, C.G. Jung, and R2's The Signal[, and Barrack Obama] — a fushigi* Collection.

Today's *fushigi collection began over a week ago when I began struggling to write a poem in response to a visual prompt supplied by Rose Mary Boehm at Houseboat, the Photo/Poetical blog RMB is moderating — and which I am extremely happy and surprised to be a part of.

As the poem evolved I decided that I required something from the Chinese book of Changes, The I Ching.
I grabbed my copy of the Richard Wilhelm / Cary F. Baynes Princeton University Press edition and flipped it open at random to see what came out. I was disappointed, initially, to see that my random flip had put me outside the hexagram readings and inside the section called Ta Chuan / The Great Treatise. However, what I read there could not have been more on point to complete the poem and tie in with what I was reading in Noam Chomsky: A Philosophic Overview by Justin Leiber.

This is what I read from The I Ching:
2. The Master said: Writing cannot express words completely. Words cannot express thoughts completely.

Are we then unable to see the thoughts of the holy sages?

The Master said: The holy sages set up the images in order to express their thoughts completely; they devised the hexagrams in order to express the true and the false completely. Then they apprehended judgments and so could express their words completely.

(They created change and continuity, to show the advantage completely; they urged on, they set in motion, to set forth the spirit completely.) (pg 322)
I've emphasized the bit I incorporated into the poem. After undergoing the group's critical eye, and being severely pared down, it evolved into a piece of flash prose that I titled What Cannot be Expressed:
Far from urbane strictures, while passing through yet another distant land, I paused, stopped reading, marked my page. Unexpectedly I remembered the day that I read 'live life as a tourist' on the bumper sticker of a rusted VW van in rain. I was a young man then and, because I could read, I thought I understood. And when I became that well-booked tourist I thought I was happy.

The bus slowed at a corner crowded with raggedly-dressed ebullient villagers. Behind them my word-drunk eyes mistook the makeshift grain bag windbreak as a soiled deconstructed yin-yang art-piece. I laughed at how easily the eye is fooled by false appearance and because the book in my hands was the I Ching. With a bemused shake of my head at this odd coincidence I returned to the book, where I read Writing cannot express words completely. Words cannot express thoughts completely.

At that moment the stony weight of verbiage I had made myself blind to left my heart and in an animal panic I pushed my way past the press of shoulders and jabs of elbows. With my hands grasping my mouth and books I stumbled down the bus's step-well and crashed though the rickety doors to splash down on the rain-soaked earth.

Now silent, the villagers' heads turned and their eyes watched my hands flail uselessly as my body wordlessly heaved its stomach into the muck.
The idea of the problem of words not containing the 'real' meaning of existence was the point I was making in the poem, of course. This is not an unfamiliar theme with me, as both Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu discuss this problem. However, I did not think of going to them when I wanted to include a quotation, which is whom I normally would go to. For some reason the manner which I thought of the photo as a deconstructed 'yin-yang' symbol nudged me towards The I Ching,
which is where I went, this time. And proceeded to flip open to that exact page on which was exactly what I was writing about. Curious.

But now here is where things become curiously fushigi. And, I apologize for what is to follow because it is a rather complex discussion on philosophical issues of language. But one that is truly fascinating, and makes for a very subtle fushigi.

Long after I'd started writing What Cannot be Expressed, but in the morning before flipping to The I Ching I was continuing to read with great fascination Leiber's description of the problems and proposals in
establishing what would constitute a universal language generation mechanism, basically an effort to address how humans can learn language let alone learn how to speak. (It is not an exaggeration to say that Chomsky's effect in revolutionizing the philosophical science of linguistics was at the same scale as Einstein's effect on physics: it was forever changed.) What Chomsky proved was that a list of all the words and all the sentences of a language cannot describe how a language works because meaningful sentence generation is infinite and so cannot be captured by any list. The consequence of this, which is still being argued by some die-hard empiricists, is that an empirical study of language-constituents will be inadequate to explain the language. Chomsky has argued that meaning, called semantics by linguists, plays an important, perhaps even pre-verbal role, which he assigned to something called deep structure. Without quite saying it, at least in Leiber's overview of Chomsky's work, Chomsky is saying that meaning pre-exists words, and words pre-exist sentences.

Wow, when I write it out like that, there would appear to be virtually no significant difference between what the Chinese Master said about language 2500 years ago and Chomsky is saying today!

But to solidify the fushigi here is what I read that morning, and even flagged with a little sticky note on which I wrote A[nswer]: because the 'deep structure' is preverbal. What was I answering? A series of questions Leiber posed on behalf of those hoping to keep language empiricists alive by arguing that Chomsky is incorrect. Paraphrased, they argue that within deep structure meaning and syntax are synonymous, and as such if the right syntactical form can be discovered there a natural language generating mechanism capable of creating meaningful sentences will have been ascertained. Anyway, here's the paragraph. I have italicized the particular questions my sticky note was addressing:
The general thrust of the generative-semanticist proposal for improving transformational grammar is very simple: if some semantic features of sentences can be specified in their syntactical deep structure why can not all such features be specified? Why split the syntactic and semantic components at all? Why not equate ultimate syntactic deep structure with semantic representation? Or, more speculatively, one can ask, why not take the system of semantic representation to be something like the familiar predicate logic (with perhaps a few additions), and the base to be such a system supplemented with a relatively small number of "atomic predicates," or semantic primitives, universal to human thought? The words of particular languages, just as their surface syntactical structures, would decompose into extremely abstract and complex syntactic-semantical deep structures; the features constituting the lexical-syntactical peculiarities of a language would be given as a series of transformations relating the syntactic-semantical deep structures (or "natural logic formulas") of the "universal base" to their particular realizations in the language in question, similarly for the peculiarities of other human languages (122).
Like I said, complex language to argue that syntax might be enough to create a language if it is at a 'deep' enough level in the 'deep structure' of what ever it is in being human creates language. (Does not that sound very much like Jung's idea of the collective unconscious — which Jung argues is preverbal or even non-verbal and is expressed in archetypes that struggle to express their meaning in dreams and stories?)

Well, that is the main fushigi, but another one cropped up that I'll throw in. It began yesterday, when I used Photoshop Elements — which I almost never use because it is counter-intuitive to me — to play around with my poem version of What Cannot be Expressed and Rose's photo. After playing with it for an hour or two, I came away dissatisfied with the result, as was RMB. But here's what I did:
I think I could have refined it using individual pixel adjustments to make it more readable, but I don't really have the time for it. Today, while I was preparing to do this blog, I went to the Houseboat blog to get links and text and was suddenly struck by something very, very peculiar. I re-read RMB's excellent poem, Magic Markers on Houseboat, and noticed, now, something fushigi-ish with the poem's title and how it closes:

Wondrous transformation:
sackcloth and ashes
become precious lace
with the help of magic markers.
What stood out this time,when I read Magic Markers, is how it connects to the font with which I chose to use in my overlay onto the photo.
The font I used is … can you guess? Marker Felt, which I picked from over a hundred available fonts.

To close on an even more peculiar note: last night, as I was beginning
to work on this blog, I turned on CBC R2's The Signal, with Laurie Brown. And typical of me when I'm working, the music is more background entertainment than the locus of my attention. (If a particular song or artist grabs me, then I will concentrate). At some point, I guess about half way through the show, Brown began talking about one of the artists. I didn't pay attention until she commented that the composer stated in an interview that the last person to ask about what their music means is the composer. That is for others to decide.

Well, a few days ago I picked up and looked through one of my latest and most delectable book finds: Volume 15 of the Collected Works
of C.G. Jung, The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, and found an amusing little comment he'd made about poets. I was amused initially because of my participation with the Boathouse/Houseboat poetry group, and our critiquing each others poems as to their structure, impact, meaning, etc.
Poets are human too, and what they say about their work is often far from being the best word on the subject. It seems we have to defend the seriousness of the visionary experience against the personal resistance of the poets themselves (p.94).

Fushigi Addendum 2012.01.01.
RMB today sent me a link to an announcement that there is an immanent paradigm shift in how the world's economy is going to be managed because of an expanding spiritual awareness on the part of our economic and political leaders. A New Global Economic Restructuring is an announcement presented by James Martinez of recent recognition by some important economic and business people that if humans are to survive they cannot continue to do what they are doing. During the somewhat disjointed discourse my ears picked up when I heard him say, citing President Obama,
… And that theory fits well on a
bumper sticker. But here's the problem: It doesn't work. It has never worked. It didn't work when it was tried…' Funny, that, because that is what my poem was about, from a personal spiritual level and used bumper sticker in the exact same way: as being too small to contain real wisdom, but which was acted on as if true.

It is bemusing that Obama was cited in a delivery that was given in the context of a spiritually motivated human change in economic behaviour. And, even funnier, is that this quotation comes from the Osawatomie speech given by Barrack Obama December 7, 2011, in which he avers that Reagonomics a là Milton Friedman is wrong.

Thank you, RMB, for helping to initiate and cap off a truly bizarre collection of fushigis.

Monday, December 12, 2011

2011.12.11 - Waiting for Godot — Finished 2011.11.21

Samuel Beckett.
Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts.
New York: Grove Press, Inc. 1954. [Now Grove/Atlantic: ISBN 978-0-8021-4442-3.]

I am struggling to begin this review. But, before I do, WfG gets from me a solid ★★★★★ out of ☆☆☆☆☆. In fact, it was so good that as soon as I finished it the first time, I promptly re-read it.

My struggle is between being too glib: "This is a brilliant metaphor for the condition our human condition has conditioned us to unconditionally accept" — to being too dismissive, such as was expressed by a co-worker who, upon learning I was reading Godot, said "I watched it on TV. It was great! A great play about nothing." Now I suspect that because he reacted to 'nothing' so strongly that his unconscious did not in anyway find it to be empty.

And so it, is, that despite an ostensible appearance that it is about nothing, nothing is further from the truth. WfG is definitely not about nothing. The metaphors are nearly endless,
from the simple ones such as the too small boots pinching the feet — constricted understanding hobbles psychological/emotional movement. Beckett even extends that to include putting on another's boots in the hopes of acquiring the ability to walk with less discomfort, metaphor for putting on another's ideas.

I haven't gone onto the web to search for the likely endless reams of ideas this play has generated. Nor do I want to do a review of the play, as such. Instead I would like to briefly concentrate on the character Lucky. [Note: I will discuss this role in some detail, so if you want to be surprised by Lucky in the play, do not read on before reading the play.]

Lucky comes onto the stage with a noose around his neck carrying a collection of stuff. The end of the rope extends out of sight, off stage, making Pozzo, Lucky's master, initially invisible. (Is that the smallest of hints of Adam Smith's Invisible Glove?) Pozzo controls Lucky with the use of the noose, via jerks (Lucky has open sores from it), and with a whip and short, usually one word, commands such as the On! and Back! that introduce the pair. Later, Pozzo wants to put Lucky's intellectual prowess, specifically his ability to think, on display for Estragon and Vladimir, the pair waiting for Godot:
POZZO: Stand back! (Vladimir and Estragon move away from Lucky. Pozzo jerks the rope. Lucky looks at Pozzo.) Think, pig! (Pause. Lucky begins to dance.) Stop! (Lucky stops.) Forward! (Lucky advances.) Stop! (Lucky stops.) Think!


LUCKY: On the other hand with regard to—
[I blogged this section more extensively as part of a peculiar fushigi @ Godot, Ballet, Pocket Watch & Alice.]

This has particular resonance for me because of a recent employee motivational propaganda campaign I (and at least several thousands of others) were subjected to. It was comprised of a series of 3 posters and their electronic facsimile being festooned across the offices. The posters were comprised of two parts. The top half was a single word, a command: Say, Stay, Strive. The balance were terse reasons for obeying the command, for the last two, and what to say for the first one.

Less specifically, the extended thinking that Lucky expresses is, of course, a perfect metaphor for what passes
for thinking through the news media and many official journals: a huge pile of impressive sounding phrases that at best hide the truth but at worst promulgate false truths and ideology. And all co-mingled with a curious obsession about sports. [I wonder if Beckett was influenced by some of George Orwell's pointed criticism of the media and much intellectual thought, such as he delineated in Homage to Catalonia? Wikipedia does not reference such a connection.]

But why does Lucky stay with the physically and verbally abusive Pozzo? He is, ostensibly, a free man. Pozzo even ascribes to him freedom. Well, the answer is an interesting one, and reminds me of the current batch of presidential candidates who blame the poor for being poor because if they didn't want to be poor they could work themselves out of it. Here's Pozzo's reasoning for Lucky's enslavement to him:
POZZO: Ah! Why couldn't you say so before? Why he doesn't make himself comfortable? Let's try and get this clear. Has he not the right to? Certainly he has. It follows that he doesn't want to. There's reasoning for you. And why doesn't he want to? (Pause.) Gentlemen, the reason is this.

VLADIMIR: (to Estragon). Make a note of this.

POZZO: He wants to impress me, so that I'll keep him.

POZZO: Perhaps I haven't got it quite right. He wants to mollify me, so that I'll give up the idea of parting with him. No, that's not exactly it either.

VLADIMIR: You want to get rid of him?

POZZO: He wants to cod me, but he won't.

VLADIMIR: You want to get rid of him?

POZZO: He imagines that when I see how well he carries I'll be tempted to keep him on in that capacity.

ESTRAGON: You've had enough of him?

POZZO: In reality he carries like a pig. It's not his job.

VLADIMIR: You want to get rid of him?

POZZO: He imagines that when I see him indefatigable I'll regret my decision. Such is his miserable scheme. As though I were short of slaves! (All three look at Lucky.) Atlas, son of Jupiter! (Silence.) Well, that's that, I think. Anything else?


VLADIMIR: You want to get rid of him?

POZZO: Remark that I might just as well have been in his shoes and he in mine. If chance had not willed otherwise. To each one his due.

VLADIMIR: You waagerrim?

POZZO: I beg your pardon?

VLADIMIR: You want to get rid of him?

POZZO: I do. But instead of driving him away as I might have done, I mean instead of simply kicking him out on his arse, in the goodness of my heart I am bringing him to the fair, where I hope to get a good price for him. The truth is you can't drive such creatures away. The best thing would be to kill them.

(Lucky weeps.)

ESTRAGON: He's crying!

POZZO: Old dogs have more dignity. (He proffers his handkerchief to Estragon.) Comfort him, since you pity him. (Estragon hesitates.) Come on. (Estragon takes the handkerchief.) Wipe away his tears, he'll feel less forsaken.

(Estragon hesitates.)

VLADIMIR: Here, give it to me, I'll do it.

(Estragon refuses to give the handkerchief.)

(Childish gestures.)

POZZO: Make haste, before he stops. (Estragon approaches Lucky and makes to wipe his eyes. Lucky kicks him violently in the shins. Estragon drops the handkerchief, recoils, staggers about the stage howling with pain.) Hanky!

(Lucky puts down bag and basket, picks up handkerchief and gives it to Pozzo, goes back to his place, picks up bag and basket.)

ESTRAGON: Oh the swine! (He pulls up the leg of his trousers.) He's crippled me!

POZZO: I told you he didn't like strangers.

Interesting. Lucky has enslaved himself in order to appease his master, to be liked enough to be seen as worthy by Pozzo.

So why did Lucky kick Estragon in the shins? As I have been thinking about this, it struck me that Lucky's behaviour corresponds exactly with those who have fully submitted to their lot in life. My first realization of this tickled out from Noam Chomsky's reference to the 'benevolence' expressed by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to 'his' workers in 1896:

These are the fruits of the fierce corporate campaign undertaken as soon as American workers finally won the right to organize in the mid-1930s, after long years of bitter struggle and violent repression
unmatched in the industrial world. Perhaps we may even return to the days when the admired philanthropist Andrew Carnegie could preach the virtues of "honest, industrious, self-denying poverty" to the victims of the great depression of 1896, shortly after he had brutally crushed the steel workers union at Homestead, while announcing that the defeated workers had sent him a wire saying, "Kind master, tell us what you wish us to do and we will do it for you." It was because he knew "how sweet and happy and pure the home of honest poverty is" that Carnegie sympathized with the rich, he explained, meanwhile sharing their grim fate in his lavishly appointed mansions fn37 (37. Sexton, Patricia Cayo. The War on Labor and the Left Westview 1991, p83f.)

So a well-ordered society should run, according to the "vile maxim of the masters." (Year 501: The Conquest Continues, pg. 56-7).
Eventually, the people brutalized recognize the futility of fighting it, and so beat anyone who might offer them hope as being trouble makers or a threat to the status quo. Social critic and comic Bill Maher makes frequent reference to the American labourer who descries as a kind of evil the benefits European workers get in terms of time off, health, paternal benefits, etc. instead of struggling to achieve them for themselves.

Similarly, in the movie Guess Who's Coming for Dinner the parents actively dissuade the interracial couple because there would be trouble for the couple and their parents, too. Freedom roped off with fear.

Lucky is Estragon and Vladimir. Lucky is enslaved to Pozzo by choice — more specifically having chosen willingly or not to accept the lack of choice — not the rope. Estragon and Vladimir are enslaved to the hope of Godot providing them their direction in life.

The metaphors are obvious: we make our choices to remain as we are, whether we are societally successful or not, by accepting the situation we find ourselves in by submitting to choices others have made for us, then hoping that abandoning our Selves to those seen or unseen others will bring us succour.

The challenge, here, is twofold. The courage to see things exactly as they are within ourselves and in the society, and the wisdom to know what can and cannot be changed. I have no idea how either of these things are done.

This play is endlessly rich in meaning. I would now like to see it, and to produce an amateur production of it — or perhaps a reading. Hmmmm.