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March 31, 2005

More Singapore

o my first night here I was jetlagged but still decided to go to a local movie theater to see the new Bruce Willis movie, Hostage (read the book...Robert Crais is a fine writer; check out his elvis Cole series).

And when I stepped up to the box office to buy a ticket, they had a computer screen flat on the counter looking up at me with a layout of the theater and asked me to select a seat. THAT'S COOL. Select your own seat to see a movie. Singaporeans love structure.

Along those lines, part of the previews was a little movie PSA (Public Service Announcement) that started off with a handsome man getting out of bed, putting on his shirt and leaving a lovely woman still lying partly under the covers. The cut to a Special Forces type military guy in green uniform, camouflage-streaked blackface, carrying a rifle and wearing electronics headgear. Then flash back to the man getting dressed, then cut to a family, then back to the military night scene, then a voiceover begins telling you how the Singapore Army protects you and gives you freedom to have a family and lay in bed in peace.

Tie that to the fact that every Singaporean male is required to have military experience before going into the private sector, and that helps explain some of the prevalent attachment to strucutre and hierarchy and non-matrixed authority in corporate groups.

Singapore is a singular city/country.

By the way, are we going to see a slew of April Fool blogs tomorrow?

*** All I want is a warm bed, a kind word, and ultimate power. Ashleigh Brilliant


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Sitting Duck

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March 30, 2005

BabeWits


've added a new section to the side column: BabeWits.

At first I was going to include all the female blogs I come across, but then I realized that wasn't what first triggered the thought. BabeWits is not for the Wonkettes and Postrels and Hopes.

It's for the...well, I can't quite put my finger on it yet, but I start with Cake Eater Chronicles, Feisty Repartee, Fistful of Fortnights, and Just Breathe, AKA the Demystifying Divas.

The thing is, these women carve out distinctly intelligent women's voices, very female, in an environment dominated by males, and I just find something attractive about those voices.

Of course, if someone has a problem with the title BabeWits, please suggest a witty alternative for me to consider: WomenWits? (Arrgh) FemWits? (*choke*) HerWits? (Puhleeze!)

And please suggest who else I should read and add to BabeWits. I'm just starting this exploration. (And should I add Wonkette to this list? Somehow, she still feels like she is outside what being a BabeWit is, like Blue-Eyed Infidel.)


***The writer of this sentence, whoever he is, is a damned sexist!


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Oooooooooooo-Kay

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March 29, 2005

Singapore, Rationalized!

y oh my! I don't remember which movie had this quote, but someone once said that the most powerful force in humans is not the sex drive but in the mind's power to rationalize!

First, the service on Singapore Airlines is superb. It's rare that you get flight attendants who smile in such a way that you know they enjoy their job and serving you.

So...I landed earlier than I thought, 11:45 am Tuesday because a Singapore Airlines attendant noted that my change of flight in Hong Kong was unnecessary. I could stay on the same flight and get there earlier. So that was, let's see, 4 hours Minneapolis ot SFO, 14 hours SFO to Hong Kong, and 3+ hours Hing Kong to Singapore.

And I slept about 6 hours. I did watch Closer (Uhgh! What an awful existential mess of a movie that has the kind of dialogue that screams "A WRITER is writing this." Then The Incredibles. Again. Worth it. In between I read a George Pelecanos novel (blood, drugs and guts in D.C. with Strange/Quinn).

So I arrive at the hotel around 12:45 and checkin and shower. I only have the rest of the day to see Singapore. The next three days are 12- to 14-hour working days. I go to a tour desk saying I want to get on the cable cars and visit Sentosa. So they say one starts at 3:30 pm. Good. So I can eat.

I also heard about something called the Night Safari where you tour a zoo at night and see night animals, I guess. So I ask if there is a way to do that too, since it's on Sentosa (I thought, but I was wrong.) So they say Yeah you can do both and get back around 10:00 pm. So I pay for both.

Then I notice that I can have a suit and shirts tailored while I'm here, so I set that up. They want me sized immediately, cause now I find out that I have to LEAVE AT 2:00 PM, just 30 minutes to eat and get tailored.

They say no problem it's practically next door (no). I follow a guy and realize I won't have any time to sit down to lunch, but he points to a Subway sandwich shop. Great. I'm in Singapore, with world-renowned great food and I have JUST ENOUGH TIME TO EAT AT AN AMERICAN-STYLE SUBWAY!

So I pick out fabric, get measured for a 3-button suit with two trousers and three shirts, give them my credit card for more than I thought, but still a good deal, I think.

By the way, unlike China and Taiwan, the former British colony Singapore is completely English-friendly. All the signs are in English. In fact, even though a majority of the population is Chinese, there is virtually no Chinese characters on the publis signs. Everyone is raised speaking English.

Okay, so I grab a quick Subway chicken sub sandwich (ugh) and rush to be on time for the bus. But, hey! I'm gonna see Singapore!

So one bus takes us to other buses where we wait. Good thing I brought my Pelecanos novel. Singapore is only about 30 square miles so I know we won't be driving for long.

Finally we get under way with about 30 of us tourists and a nice talky local. He tells us we have to drive up Mount Faber to get to the cable cars. Sound ominous. Turns out "Mount Faber" is 105 meters high. Whoopee!

The cable cars are an aweseome 95 meters above sea level. My fear of heights is not even triggered. We get to see the city, the port, the South China Sea, and some foggy islands in the distance. The cable cars hold up to 6 people and look safe enough. We land and get ushered into...

...The Sentosa Butterfly Park. Yay. Butterflies. But first we have to go through the museum part, with hundreds of dead, mounted beautiful butterflies, the kinda stuff I've seen before and took no pleasure in. I mean, DEAD butterflies? Ain't that some kind of oxymoron? I want to see an enclosed kinda greehouse with LIVE butterflies.

So I race through the DEAD exhibits and into the LIVE greenhouse...where there is about 1 butterfly per 8 cubic meters, and none of them are extra-large, like I would expect being so near the equator. (Oh yeah, apparently nobody felt that Indonesian earthquake, and no tsunami).

Anyway, I'm starting to get a bit of a hankering for those BIG and BLUE and SHINY BRIGHT DEAD butterflies...why do we only see those exotic ones DEAD behind glass? So I quickly run through The Butterfly Park (yeah, I guess the butterflies parked themselves outasight) and run into ANOTHER museum, but this time there behind the glass are...

...BEETLES! And these are LIVE and BIG and EXOTIC with PINCERS, like the Rhino Beetle and some kinda African beetle. And some even have a third protruding tusk-like thing bigger than the pincers arcing straight out over the pincers and I'm beginning to freak because these things are like 5 or 6 inches long, some with extra-wide bodies and...


So I run out and am gratified to see museum display cases of DEAD humungous beetles, and I thinkg that's a VERY good idea. No oxymoron there.

So I'm thinking that this is all very touristy and such but ultimately boring. Is the Night Safari going to be more of the same? I'm beginning to have doubts about the Night Safari.

Isn't that just like the mind? Here I am on 6 hours sleep heading for a mother of a jetlag experience within hours and relating my current tour with a tour I know nothing about and trying to rationalize doing both and thinking one will tell me how good the other is, and I have little idea how exactly STUPID my mind is right now, rationalizing as it goes along.

Anyway, with the cable cars and butterfly park a bust, out next stop is...

Underwater World Singapore! That's right. Just like at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco or the Monterey Aquarium or any of several dozen places around the U.S. and hudnreds around the world...And who would have guessed how UTTERLY COOL IT WAS GOING TO BE?

I mean I was writing it off as a disappointment, but when we get inside it, we see beautiful tropical fish in big tanks and HUGE nautilus (I thought they were foot-long snails) and then there is this tank with a stingray and a HUGE Alligator Gar, a fish about 3-4 feet long with a big butt and a front-end like an alligator.

And then I turn a corner to see these HUGE seahorses that look like plants called Sea Dragons or something, some kinda chameleon ability with arms like green plant leaves,

...and next to that is a Morey Eel tank with these HUGE things sticking out of of large tubes.

Not a fish
Not a whale
Not a 15-foot snail
It's...A MOREY!

(Dean Martin is rollin')

And then we descend into a basement hall where they have Pirahna and a video showing them ripping apart a pelican (with cameras both mysteriously above and below the water line) leaving a feathery, bony carcass.

And then we get to ride a little people conveyer belt through the standard underwater plexiglass TUBE the "Sphincter Spotlight" I call it and sure enough we get to see the sphincter of HUGE fish and sharks and stingrays (which have a bunch of parallel ones) and i mean some of these big ugly fish average 4 to 5 feet in length and some of the sharks are actually 7 feet.

With huge sphincters!

And I leave that place rather jazzed, still rationazing that I will get out to the Night Safari. Then we get on the bus and jetlag hits and I'm...

..not doing it.

But I get a second wind, enough to write this mess without correcting the typos...

Let me know if it was worth it.

*** I could do great things, if I weren’t so busy doing little things. Ashleigh Brilliant


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March 27, 2005

Next Stop, Singapore


fter several days visiting friends in Minneapolis (without a broadband connection or time to check the news), I have returned to San Francisco International Airport and find myself sitting in the Business Class lounge waiting for a midnight Sunday/Monday flight to Singapore for a few days of work. (Change of planes in Hong Kong.)

My plan is to watch a couple of movies before taking my new friend, Ambien, for an all-nighter. I arrive at 3:40 pm Tuesday. (Monday evening, U.S. time).

I will have a few hours to sightsee before sleeping again and getting into three days of morning-to-night work. I will try to post in the evenings.

Meanwhile, read the archives.

*** Why did no one tell me about this place, and how can we prevent others from discovering it? Ashleigh Brilliant


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March 23, 2005

Harold C Goddard on Poetry

ne of the great reads on Shakespeare is Harold C. Goddard's The Meaning of Shakespeare. My God, what a teacher this man must have been! (Head of the English Dept. at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in the 1930s and 40s.)

Here are a few passages on poetry from Chapter 1:

Poetry is not something that exists in printed words on the page. It is not even something that exists in nature, in sunshine or in moonlight. Nor on the other hand is it something that exists just in the human heart or mind. It is rather the spark that leaps across when something within is brought close to something without, or something without to something within. The poetry is the spark. Or, if you will, it is what the spark gives birth to, something as different from either its inner or its outer constituent as water is from the oxygen or the hydrogen that electricity combines...

Imagination is neither the language of nature nor the language of man, but both at once, the medium of communion between the two--as if the birds, unable to understand the speech of man, and man, unable to understand the songs of birds, yet longing to communicate, were to agree on a tongue made up of sounds they both could comprehend--the voice of running water perhaps or the wind in the trees. Imagination is the elemental speech in all senses, the first and the last, of primitive man and of the poets...

Poetry, the elemental speech, is the like the elements. Its primary function is not to convey thought, but to reflect life. It shows man his soul, as a looking glass does his face. There hangs the mirror on the wall, a definite object, the same for all. Yet whoever looks into it sees not the mirror but himself. We all live in the same world, but what different worlds we see in it and make out of it: Caesar's, Jesus', Machiavelli's, Mozart's--yours and mine...

To our age anything Delphic is anathema. We want the definite. As certainly as ours is a time of the expert and the technician, we are living under a dynasty of the intellect, and the aim of the intellect is not to wonder and love and grow wise about life, but to control it...

Art is given us to redeem us. All we are in the habit of asking or expecting of it today is that it should please or teach--whereas it ought to captivate us, carry us out of ourselves, make us over into something more nearly in its own image...

"King Lear is a miracle," wrote a young woman who had just come under its incomparable spell. "There is nothing in the whole world that is not in this play. It says everything, and if this is the last and final judgment on the world we live in, then it is a miraculous world. This is a miracle play."

*** Colour, which is the poet's wealth, is so expensive that most take to mere outline sketches and become men of science. Henry David Thoreau

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March 22, 2005

The REAL Power of Blogs

've made some stupid mistakes writing for this blog and have had to own up to them. But that's part of the whole point, isn't it?

As a graduate student, I had a professor who conducted his seminars in literature in a manner radically different from many of his colleagues.

He would give us a question and watch seven or eight of us to discuss and debate it for 90 minutes or so. At first, people would try to draw him in to give the "right" answer, and of course he refused. Furthermore, he wanted us to deal with the matter directly, without benefit of reading critical interpretations. (Every one of his colleagues had us read critical interpretations. Godawful stuff mostly.)

For example, in his Austen and Bronte seminar--where I finally learned how to read by having to deal with the precise and complex nature of Jane Austen's prose rather than what people had written about it--we gradually got used to presenting arguments, changing our minds, presenting revised arguments, changing our minds again, live, in the moment, over this or that passage in Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre.

One day, something remarkable happened. We were discussing whether Darcy's character changed in Pride and Prejudice, a topic that happened to be our professor's dissertation topic, and someone finally presented an argument that contradicted the professor's position...and changed the professor's mind!

He freely admitted that now he realized that he was wrong in his dissertation. What a great, revelatory moment. What a humble man.

I then realized that that was the precise nature of the forum he had provided for us--the ability to dispassionately advance arguments, entertain comments and criticisms in such a way that it was okay to change our minds and immediately advance a new argument. Without shame, without embarassment, without humiliation. In direct response to great literature, not secondary critical material.


And this goes to the heart of the REAL power of blogs.

Credibility in bloggers, especially political bloggers, is built on a foundation of integrity and transparency. On a willingness to advance an informed opinion, entertain immediate criticism and countering opinions, then immediately change one's mind based on that new information. And then to advance a new position, and be just as passionate about that position until someone comes up with another good reason to change one's mind.

And this fact also points to why the MSM (Mainstream Media) is forced to change or die. Their foundation has been built on gatekeeping, holding close to the vest, admitting error under duress, backpeddling, evasion, withholding the whole story...

...and now they are forced to be transparent. Poor, poor MSM. We're so sorry. Let's shed a tear for the MSM.

Thank God for blogs!

*** You can't just suddenly be my friend; you have to go through a training period. Ashleigh Brilliant


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March 21, 2005

4. How the Mind Works

ou can jump to Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9


Every teacher in every classroom should be aware that every student has a subconscious Censor, the Reticular Activating System. And they should be aware that they themselves have one as well.

In many ways, we do not act according to the truth. We act according to the truth as we believe it to be. And there is a particular danger when experts are certain that they know the truth. The human mind innately responds to "psychological certainty" by creating very real blindspots to evidence and arguments that contradict the certainty.

Anyone aspiring to be objective in viewing evidence and sorting through arguments needs to develop a degree of self-doubt in order to minimize the automatic and natural actions of the Censor in human mind.

The Story of Cliff Young

In Australia a 600-km marathon is held between the cities of Sydney and Melbourne. Several years ago a 61-year-old man named Cliff Young showed up to run the race. The world-class runners thought he was some derelict that showed up in the wrong place because Cliff showed up wearing Osh Gosh overalls and galoshes. And he was obviously an old man.

[For a detailed story on Cliff Young, go here.]

When he told them he was there for the marathon, the professional runners asked if he had ever run in a marathon before. "No," replied Cliff. "How have you been training?" they asked. "I have cattle on my station [farm] and since I have no horses, I run around to move them along." The runners laughed.

You see, every professional marathoner knew with certainty that it took about five days to run this race, and that in order to compete, you would need to run 18 hours and sleep six hours. Cliff Young was clearly not up to their standards.

When the marathon started, the pros left Cliff behind in his galoshes. He had a leisurely shuffling style of running that targeted him as an amateur.

Cliff had no training. He did not know what the world-class runners knew. As you have probably guessed, Cliff won the race, but that is not what is astonishing. What is astonishing is that he cut one-and-a-half days off the record time.

How? Because of his lack of training, he didn't "know" that you had to sleep six hours. Cliff got up three hours early and just kept on shuffling along in his galoshes while the pro runners slept, and he finished the race in three-and-a-half days. He beat everybody. He was a sensation in Australia.

Now that world-class runners "know" that it is possible to run with much less sleep, and that they can conserve energy by adopting an easy shuffling jog, they have a new way of approaching long marathons.

We are like the pro runners. We act, not according to the "real truth" but according to some cockeyed truth given to us by some well-meaning or not-so-well-meaning "expert." For this reason, people that don't know the "accepted wisdom" are more likely to discover new aspects of life, create remarkable inventions, and break through into a new realm of consciousness.


The Censor

The conscious mind perceives, associates, evaluates, and decides. The subconscious mind stores habits and attitudes, and also stores what it believes to be the truth, irrespective of what the real truth is.

The primary job of the Censor is to Maintain Sanity. (It also creates drive and energy, and resolves conflict, both of which are connected to its need to maintain sanity.)

The subconscious stores "truth" (it is initially uncritical as to the validity of the stored truth). These "truths" are stored in the form of habits and attitudes that arise from facsimiles, the picture-patterns that we hold onto as anchor points in this world.

For example, suppose my parents told me (as they did when I was twelve) that "You can't make money doing what you love; you have to be practical." If I uncritically accept that picture, it makes its way into my subconscious and is stored as true. Now immediately the Censor goes to work building blindspots to anything suggesting that I actually can make money doing what I love. I only develop habits and attitudes that reinforce the stored picture.

Or suppose that my professors tell me that Shakspere of Stratford wrote the Shakespeare poems and plays. If I uncritically accept that picture, it makes its way into my subconscious and is stored as "true." Now immediately the Censor goes to work building blindspots to anything suggesting an alternate candidate.

Unless something happens to overcome the blindspots, I will accept the orthodox view because those anchor points have been established with which I am comfortable. AND if I go on to build a scholarly career on that picture, or to tie my finances in some way with that interpretation, then I will build further blindspots to block out any threat to my comfortable and lucrative foundation.

Of course, it's just as important that if I am persuaded that someone else may have written the poems and plays attributed to a Shakespeare that I do not attach myself to this new "truth;" otherwise, I will begin building blindspots to any evidence that contradicts my new "truth."

Why does the Censor build such blindspots? Because the Censor cannot abide insanity, meaning anything that contradicts my perceived truth. The Censor functions automatically and naturally. As long as I believe this "truth," I cannot accept anything that contradicts it. The Censor has maintained my "sanity" by requiring me to see only the stored truth. You can literally be looking at the opposite truth and NOT SEE IT. (Remember the F's?)

In other words, you can literally be looking at evidence that contradicts your interpretation of historical evidence and NOT SEE IT.

This phenomenon is evident when you lose your keys. Have you ever lost your keys, and after having looked everywhere you announce, "My keys are nowhere to be found."

Immediately, your Censor builds a blindspot against your actually seeing the keys. Why? Because you would appear foolish (insane) after having made your statement. So then someone else finds them (in an obvious place where you had looked several times), and you have to say something like, "OK, who moved them? They were not here when I looked."

This phenomenon is also evident when you judge someone. I remember being on a job and being told that a certain fellow employee was stealing from the company, but had yet to be caught at it. I began to see that employee's shiftiness. Her actions were obviously suspicious. Though I had once thought her kind and ethical, now she acted in a way that reinforced her untrustworthiness. Once the real culprit was caught, she regained her kindness and innocence.

Since stored "truths" build blindspots to reality, it seems to me that the scholars have quite a challenge in leading students into higher studies. For any statement or "truth" the scholar presents, the student may accept it in such a way that blindspots are formed against other, better "truths" or interpretations.

Thus it seems incumbent upon the scholar and scientist and teacher to convey a strong sense of only standing behind interpretations as a "best case" rather than "the one and only truth."


Let's review the job of the Censor:

1) Maintain Sanity - The Censor makes sure that you act like your self-image. It defines this acting as "sanity." When you don't act like "yourself" you develop anxiety until you either start acting like yourself again, or you change yourself (your self-image). That is, if you have a strong image of yourself as a Stratfordian, you have a harder time, even temporarily, trying on the "shoes" or point of view of an Oxfordian [one who believes that the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, wrote the plays]. The stronger the image, the more you will subconsciously work to thwart a change to that image.

If you actually discover a good Oxfordian argument, you will suffer anxiety because of the conflict with your Stratfordian self-image. A good argument is then more likely to suffer a stronger attack. (The same holds true, of course, among staunch Oxfordians who come upon a good Stratfordian argument.)

Another example: If you "know" that you are not good in math, then if you do well on a math exam, you will suffer anxiety because doing well is "not like you." Your Censor then will correct for the error of success and you will do poorly on the next exam.

Why do poor people who win the Jackpot usually end up poor again soon after? Why do people who have little money and inherit a significant amount usually spend it all and end up where they started? Because they picture themselves as poor, so they must correct for the mistake of wealth.


Why do people who've been in prison for decades have such trouble adjusting to the outside world once they are released? Why will they commit a crime in order to be sent back to prison? Because freedom conflicts with their deeply ingrained picture of being an inmate. Freedom = anxiety.

To a staunch Stratfordian, a good Oxfordian argument = anxiety, insanity.

To a staunch Christian, a good evolution argument = anxiety, insanity.

To a staunch Leftist, a good deed by President Bush = anxiety, insanity. He must be lying.

That's why imagination is crucial to experience. We only attract ourselves to a state of consciousness once we can see ourselves in it.

In other words, a scholar and scientist and teacher needs to develop a kind of objectivity where deeply held beliefs are challenged and dislodged to form a more flexible scholarly consciousness.

2) Resolve Conflict - The Censor also helps us solve problems. In fact, once we understand the art of giving our Censor problems to solve (resolve), we can grow in remarkable ways.

The Censor won't allow us to hold two contradictory pictures of ourselves or reality. To experience two contradictory beliefs, pictures, or feelings is called "Cognitive Dissonance."

The Censor always works to resolve Cognitive Dissonance. Whenever we picture something as incomplete, we label it a "problem." The Censor works to make things complete, to resolve cognitive dissonance, to solve problems.

Thus, when a staunch Stratfordian faces a good Oxfordian argument, the Censor will either 1) dismiss the good argument in order to preserve the comfort of a staunch, entrenched position, or 2) let go of the staunchness and begin to allow a larger picture of reality to emerge.

3) Create Drive and Energy - Suppose you set a goal to remodel your kitchen. Suddenly you have a "problem." The picture or vision you have does not match the reality. You experience cognitive dissonance and your Censor moves into action to resolve the problem, to create wholeness. You must do one of two things: either give up your vision or remodel the kitchen.

This form of anxiety is actually creative drive and energy. In other words, to be creative is to deliberately throw your life out of order (setting a goal or creating a vision) so that the Censor gives you creative drive and energy to get your life back in order (accomplish the goal or vision).

Many people avoid setting visions and goals, or accepting new interpretations, because they confuse creative drive with stress. To grow intellectually means to continually revise yourself and your models of reality. This is why a true scholar does not require students to "lock on" to particular literary interpretations, or require students to work primarily with critical interpretations of literature rather than the literature itself.

Real scholars will help students thoughtfully explore alternative models, without prejudicing them or threatening them with academic censure.

More to come in 5. How the Mind Works.


*** I x V = R (Imagination times Vividness equals Reality) Lou Tice


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Starve the Dog

lue-Eyed Infidel wants to starve her dog to death, in a post that will make you laugh uncomfortably.

Now that I know that in America, many many people (mostly liberals) are totally fine with starving living things to death - specifically, living things with "rights", which would imply some sort of sentience or consciousness or soul but apparently that includes vegetables - I've been thinking of all sorts of practical applications of that belief.

*** Why aren’t you more grateful when I prove how wrong you’ve been? Ashleigh Brilliant
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March 20, 2005

Constitutional Amendment Meme

uppose in your lifetime you could get passed one Constitutional Amendment that would most affect the U.S.A. in the way you most wanted to effect a change. What would that be?

The history of Federal involvement in American education is the history of the steady decline of American education, especially literacy in its true sense. As Richard Mitchell points out, "In its highest sense, literacy is a profoundly destructive talent. It is destructive certainly of all received opinion; it is destructive of all orthodoxy, all traditionalism, and, therefore, from a government's point of view, it is very undesirable."

And as Walter Karp showed us in Textbook America,

Something had to be done quickly or democracy might one day break out. Educational leaders quickly worked out a solution. Let the secondary schools teach the children of workers what was fit only for workers. As Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton, sternly advised the Federation of High School Teachers: 'We want one class of persons to have a liberal education and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.' Since there was no way to stop 'the masses' from entering high school, the only way to meet the crisis, in short, was to prevent them from learning anything liberating when they got there.

The EduWits websites listed to the right of this post speak volumes as to the pernicious influence of government in schooling. And even though for years I thought that there was a way to change that influence through vouchers and charter schools and the like, the government still has its sentimental tendrils on education.

Therefore, I would want to see a Constitutional Amendement along these lines:

AMENDMENT XXVIII

Section 1. The Federal Government and its agencies are hereby prohibited from any involvement, legal, judicial, and financial, in formal public education or formal private education of the citizens and residents of the United States, except as noted in Section 3.

Section 2. The Federal Goverment and its agencies are hereby prohibited from financially supporting any programs, institutions, think tanks, colleges, universities, foundations, or any other legal entity involved in formal public education or formal private education of the citizens and residents of the United States, except as noted in Section 3.

Section 3. The sole exception to this amendment is that the Federal Government may require education for non-citizens who enter the process of becoming U.S. Citizens.

*********

So what's your one Constitutional Amendment?

*** What the public schools practice with remorseless proficiency, however, is the prevention of citizenship and the stifling of self-government. When 58 percent of the thirteen-year-olds tested by the National Assessment for Educational Progress think it is against the law to start a third party in America, we are dealing not with a sad educational failure but with a remarkably subtle success. Walter Karp in Why Johnny Can't Think

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March 19, 2005

25-Word Challenge

uch thanks to Feisty Repartee for the honor of hosting this week's 25-Word Challenge.

The rules are simple:

1) Use the Comments to continue the story using exactly 25 words, no more, no less.
2) No back-to-back comments, but commentators can come back as often as they like.

I will close out the story sometime Sunday evening.

Ready? Here we go:

"You slaughtered my family," Moira shouted, standing tall on the rolling deck of the black pirate ship. She brandished her sword. The pockmarked Captain laughed.

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March 18, 2005

Getting Ready for the 25-Word Challenge

ho would have guessed the incredible weight of responsibility I would incur by accepting Feisty Christina's offer to host the 25-Word Challenge?

I will be spending my day (between meetings with managers from Taiwan, Singapore, and Korea) crafting the 25 words that will launch tomorrow's challenge.

Sharpen you wits and be prepared for swashbuckling action, feisty repartee, bodies galore, and perhaps a smidgeon of romance!

*** It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move into an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes. When I brood over these marvelous pleasures I have enjoyed, I would be tempted to offer God a prayer of thanks. Gustave Flaubert


*** Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint. Mark Twain

By the way, here's the schedule so far for upcoming hosts:

March 26 - Down For Repairs
April 2 - Moogie's World
April 9 - Phin's Blog
April 16 - Lady Mac's Musings
April 23 - Politickal

April 30 - The Boiling Point
May 6 - Lollygaggin
May 14 - Meanderings
May 21 - Thunder and Roses
May 28 - Bobo Blogger

June 4 - Bad Bad Juju


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March 16, 2005

The U.S. Army Wants Richard Mitchell

few days ago, I received a letter from the U.S. Army, specifically the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College in Leavenworth, Kansas, requesting permission to use material from Richard Mitchell's Less Than Words Can Say. They want to make 2200 reprint copies and 150 CD ROM copies of Chapter 3, "A Bunch of Marks."

I suppose since Richard Mitchell gave me express permission to reproduce all of his writings on the website I created, and stated his desire that all of the material be made freely available to everyone without charge, even reproduced or plagiarized if they so desired, I did so.

I wrote back granting them permission to reprint any and all of Richard Mitchell's texts at The Underground Grammarian website.

By the way, I have created Word documents and PDFs of all the texts that anyone can download here. This is mainly for teachers who want to distribute Richard Mitchell's writings to students. (Ignore the request for donations.)

If you would like to read what the U.S. Army is having their college students read, I have supplied the text below. Enjoy!

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A Bunch of Marks

till, skill in language does provide a better hope of survival; it even wins wars, for struggle on the field of battle is a dramatic version of strife in the minds of men. Long before the first trigger was pulled, Hitler fired off a shattering salvo of words. He pounded his fist and shouted: "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein F?" Don't make the mistake of thinking that his listeners muttered back an uncertain "Ach so, gewiss, gewiss." They shouted back, "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein F?"

The cannonade roared across the Channel and shook the cliffs of England. Fortunately for us all, England, although unarmed, was not unready. The answering barrage rings in our ears still: "Blood, toil, tears, and sweat." Battle was joined. Hitler's words sent the Wehrmacht crashing to the outskirts of Dunkirk but Churchill's words sent schoolboys and accountants and retired fishmongers down to the sea in their little boats and over the water to the beaches of Dunkirk.

While that may be an incomplete account of the war, it is not an inaccurate one. It was a war of words and speaking just as much as a war of iron and blood. If the fighting was sometimes noble and brave, it was because certain words were in the minds of men. If the fighting was sometimes stupid and vicious, it was because certain other words were in the minds of men. Whatever else Churchill may have been doing in those days, he was always providing the English with words. With words he formed their thoughts and emotions. "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills," said Churchill. Millions answered, apparently, "By God, so we shall."

Imagine, however, that Churchill had been an ordinary bureaucrat and had chosen to say instead:

Consolidated defensive positions and essential preplanned withdrawal facilities are to be provided in order to facilitate maximum potentialization for the repulsion and/or delay of incursive combatants in each of several preidentified categories of location deemed suitable to the emplacement and/or debarkation of hostile military contingents.

That would, at least, have spared us the pain of wondering what to do about the growing multitudes who can't seem to read and write English. By now we'd be wondering what to do about the growing multitudes who can't seem to read and write German.

Speech is tremendously powerful. It moves our minds and makes the path of history. It is, furthermore, perhaps the most complicated skill we have, and the uttering of words and sentences is only its beginning. When we speak, we do many other things simultaneously. We turn our heads and lift our eyebrows and wiggle our fingers and get up and walk about. We find exactly the right place from which to say this thing, and we go over to lean on the mantelpiece to say some other thing. We choose the appropriate pitch and volume for every sound. We sprinkle our speech with nonverbal sound effects, snorts and mm's, sighs and tsk's, and especially pauses, which are as important to speech as the rests to music. We change the shapes of our mouths and throats and alter the very tone quality of our voices. All such things, and innumerably more, we do quite automatically, and with such devices we suggest immeasurably more than the words can say by themselves.

Writing, on the other hand, is just a bunch of marks. It is not speech written down, and it lacks almost all the expressive devices of speech. It simply isn't "natural" in the way that speech is natural. For the natural expressive devices of speech, writing provides only a few pathetically inadequate gimmicks. We have some marks of punctuation and some graphic tricks, like capital letters and underlining. We can find an occasional word or expression that may remind a reader of the sound of speech, you know, and drop it in here and there. An occasional genius learns to write dialogue that we can almost hear and even to devise long passages that sound exactly right, but in general writing is even further from speech than notation is from music.

Like music, speech has a tune, and we have only the meagerest ways of indicating on the page the tune to which our words are to be sung. Commas, for instance, are pretty good as indicators of tune, and so are periods. They usually call for bits of melody that every native speaker of English sings in pretty much the same way. Question marks, however, indicate only a certain "family" of tunes, for any question we can make in English can be sung in many different ways to convey many different meanings. All these gimmicks, nevertheless, even the quotation marks that suggested a certain way to sing "family" in the last sentence, can't come close to a realistic approximation of the tune of English. And even if they could, they still wouldn't tell you which word was to be said slowly and deep in the throat and what sentence was to be delivered while leaning on the mantelpiece. As a way of recording speech, writing is a dismal failure.

It doesn't matter, though, because the recording of speech is not the proper business of writing. The proper business of writing is to stay put on the page so that we can look at it later. Writing, whether it be a grocery list or The Brothers Karamazov, freezes the work of the mind into a permanent and public form. It is the mind and memory of mankind in such a form that we can pass it around to one another and even hand it on to our unimaginably remote descendants.

Language is, essentially, speech. Writing is a special case of language. Discursive prose is a special case of writing. Written, discursive prose may be almost three thousand years old, but it is still our most recently invented use of language. It is no coincidence that the Greeks who first devised discursive prose also constructed formal logic and were the first to provide for their unimaginably remote descendants a visible record of the works of their minds. Thinking is coherent discourse, and the logic and the prose require one another.

The mind is a rudderless wanderer blown here or there by any puff of breeze. If I mention watermelons, you must think of watermelons; if giraffes, giraffes. The very rare genius can keep his mind on course for a while, perhaps as long as a whole minute, but most of us are always at the mercy of every random suggestion of environment. We imagine that we sit down and think, but, in fact, we mostly gather wool, remembering this and that and fantasizing about the other. In our heads we recite some slogans and rehash the past, often repeatedly. Even in this foolish maundering, we are easily distracted by random thoughts, mostly about money or politics but often about sports or sex. Left to its own devices, the mind plays like a child in well-stocked sandbox, toying idly with trinkets and baubles and often doing the same thing over and over again until some slightly more interesting game presents itself.

If we want to pursue extended logical thought, thought that can discover relationships and consequences and devise its own alternatives, we need a discipline imposed from outside of the mind itself. Writing is that discipline. It seems drastic, but we have to suspect that coherent, continuous thought is impossible for those who cannot construct coherent, continuous prose.

"Writing," Bacon said, "Maketh the exact man," as we all know, but we ordinarily stop thinking about that too soon. The "exact" part is only half of what writing makes; the other half is the "man." Writing does indeed make us exact because it leaves a trail of thought that we can retrace and so discover where we have been stupid. At the same time, though, it makes us "men," grown-ups who can choose what toys we want to play with and who can outwit the random suggestions of environment. In his writing, then, we can judge of at least two things in a man--his ability to think and his intention to do so, his maturity. An education that does not teach clear, coherent writing cannot provide our world with thoughtful adults; it gives us instead, at the best, clever children of all ages.

To understand the importance of writing for people who want to have a civilization, it is useful to compare discursive prose with poetry. Poetry is much older than prose, but since we have been taught to think it a form of "art," we regularly assume that prose comes first and that poetry, a much trickier business, is "refined" out of it with pain and skill. Not so. Many of the qualities that make poetry what it is are far more "natural" to any speaker of a language than the devices of prose. Like speech, poetry is metaphorical and figurative, elliptical, often more expressive than informative, synthetic rather than analytic, and concrete rather than abstract. Speech may not often be good poetry, whatever that may be, but sometimes it is. Little children devise poetic expressions quite naturally, and there seems to be no culture, however "primitive" we may think it, without its traditional poetry. Even the wretched Jiukiukwe have poetry.

The Jiukiukwe, like all other human beings, have some practical uses for poetry. In little verses, they can remember without effort the signs of a coming storm and the looks of the worms that cause diarrhea, just as we remember how many days there are in April. In poetry, or in language that is like poetry, they perform the social rituals that hold them together. That's exactly what we do when we recite the traditional formulae of recognition: Good to see you; What's new?; Lovely weather we're having. All such forms are permissible variations within the limits of established rituals that we all perform just because we're here and we're all in this together. We can remember and recite those ritual greetings just as easily as we can sing Fa-la-la-la-la and come in on the chorus--all together now!

(Digression: Why do we devote so much idle talk to the weather? Everybody knows, of course, that the weather is a "safe" subject, but that doesn't answer the question. It provides two new questions: Why is the weather a safe subject? and, Why do we devote so much idle talk to safe subjects?

The weather is right there in the world of experience. Even assistant deans pro tem can see that it's raining. When I meet the assistant dean pro tem on the campus in the rain, I am likely to assert, in one way or another, that it is in fact raining. He is likely to confirm this observation, after his fashion. We have used language where no language is needed, to indicate what is in the world of experience. To point out the rain to each other seems about as useful as mentioning the fact that we are both walking on our hind legs. That may be exactly why it's useful. We have taken the trouble to name something that needs no naming, thus acknowledging our kinship while still being careful not to evoke some other world in which our kinship might be questionable. Should I greet the assistant dean pro tem by announcing that power corrupts, he may well reply, "Absolutely!" and we will have evoked some other world, a world we'd rather not explore just now with the rain dripping down the backs of our necks. Twain probably had the truth in mind when he said that everyone talks about the weather but that nobody does anything about it. In fact, we talk about it precisely because we can't do anything about it. It permits us to establish our membership, which is polite, but it doesn't require that we look at each other's credentials too closely, which might be rude.)

Poetry is a profoundly conservative use of language. It conserves not only values and ideas but the very language itself, so that even some grammatical forms that ought to have disappeared long ago are still around and useful for special effects. Even crackpots who want to simplify and modernize English cannot bring themselves to say: Thirty days has September. It's amazing, but that actually sounds wrong, almost as wrong as: Six days shall you labor.

Prose is progressive and disruptive. It must subvert or elude the poetic qualities of speech to go about the business of logic and analysis. Discursive prose is essentially antisocial, subject to constraints and regulations that would be unsuitable, perhaps even rude, in speech. Writing is an audacious and insolent act. When we write, we call the other members of our tribe to order. We command their attention. We assert that what we have to say is valuable enough that they should give over their idle chitchat about the weather. It had better be.

When we choose to address our friends and relatives in discursive prose, it must be because what we want to say requires the special powers of discursive prose: logic, order, and coherence. The mere appearance of discursive prose promises those things. When I meet the assistant dean pro tem in the rain, I send and expect signals of fellowship. When I read his latest guidelines for the work of the Committee on Memorial Plaques, I hold in my hands a promise of logic, order, and coherence, and equally a promise that the language I read will be constrained and regulated in such a way as to engender those things. There is no Rule in Heaven that language has to be logical, orderly, and coherent any more than there is some Law of Nature that requires football players to stay within the lines. You can grab a football and run to Oshkosh anytime you please; you just won't be playing football. Your language can be illogical, disorderly, and even incomprehensible--in fact, sometimes it should be so--but you won't be writing discursive prose.

Ordinary speech, like poetry, is a kind of art; discursive prose in particular, like writing in general, is a technology. Clear, concise writing is a result of good technique, like an engine that starts and runs.

Good technique requires the knowledge and control of many conventional forms and devices. They must be conventional because writing is public and enduring, and the path of its thought must be visible to other minds in other times. Like the conventional "rules" of any technology, the rules of writing have come to be what they are because they work. You do well to keep the subject of your sentence clearly in view just as you do well to keep your powder dry and your eye on the ball. These things work.

Furthermore, although such things are matters of technique, they are derived not from some concern for technique but because they go to the heart of the matter. You keep your eye on the ball because it is the ball, and the meaning of the game is known only because of what happens to the ball. You get no points for cute panties. You keep your eye on the subject because it is the subject, and not just grammatically. It is the subject of thought, and the sentence is a proposition about it. We do not think by naming things but by making propositions about them. Nor do we think by making propositions about unnamed or unnamable things. Any writer forgets that from time to time, but a learned rule of technology calls him to order. The rules of the technology of discursive prose are simply aids to thought, and to learn the conventions of writing without learning the habit of thought is impossible.

Fools and scoundrels say that the time of writing is past, that Direct Distance Dialing and the cassette recorder have done to writing what the internal combustion engine did to the art of equitation. They point out, quite correctly by the way, that the ordinary American, once released from the schools, can go through all the rest of his life without ever having to devise a complete sentence. Even the thousands of forms we have to fill out call only for filling in blanks or checking boxes. This freedom from writing, in fact, doesn't always have to wait on our escape from the schools; fewer and fewer schools require any of it at all. This is, they tell us, an age of technology, and that what we need to know is how to program computers, not how to devise grammatical sentences in orderly sequence.

As it happens, computers work by reading and devising grammatical sentences in orderly sequence. The "language" is different, but that's how they work. Their "rules" are far more stringent and unforgiving than the rules of discursive prose. When we read a sentence whose subject and verb don't agree, we don't reject it as meaningless and useless. We may shake our heads and sigh a little, but we know what the poor fellow meant, and we go on. When the computer "reads" a "sentence" with an equivalent error, it simply spits it out and refuses to work. That's how we can tell which are the machines and which the people; the people will swallow anything. And you will swallow anything if you believe that we can teach all that computer stuff to whole herds of people who haven't been able to master the elementary logic of subject-verb agreement.

The logic of writing is simply logic; it is not some system of arbitrary conventions interesting only to those who write a lot. All logical thought goes on in the form of statements and statements about statements. We can make those statements only in language, even if that language be a different symbol system like mathematics. If we cannot make those statements and statements about statements logically, clearly, and coherently, then we cannot think and make knowledge. People who cannot put strings of sentences together in good order cannot think. An educational system that does not teach the technology of writing is preventing thought.

Chapter 3 from Less Than Words Can Say by Richard Mitchell

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March 15, 2005

Judge Strikes Down Marriage Ban

an Francisco, CA (WitNit Newswire) -- A San Francisco Superior Court judge declared California's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional Monday, saying it violates the "basic human right to marry a person of one's choice.''

Judge Richard Kramer gave legal vindication to Newsom's rationale: that the state's 28-year-old law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman is arbitrary and unfair.

"No rational purpose exists for limiting marriage in this state to opposite-sex partners,'' Kramer said in a recent interview. "In fact, based on my reasoning, no rational purpose exists for limiting marriage in this state to two people, regardless of gender and sexual orientation."

Asked to clarify these remarks, Judge Kramer stated, "Sure. Marriage is about love between people. It's arbitrary and unconstitutional to declare a limit to the number of people who should marry."

This is good news for Bob Menage, Joe Trois, and Jane Puckermen of San Rafael. "The three of us have been in love for a long time," said Jane. "We should not be denied our constitutional right to marry if we want to. Who can be against love?"

California expects an influx of immigrants from Utah.

Judge Kramer didn't stop there. "Who's to say what the limits of love are? I love my cat, Oscar. He's a person to me. If I want to marry my cat, or my horse, or my toaster, I have the constitutional right to do so. Love is love, and the State has no business getting between me and my kitty, my pony, or my appliance."

Meanwhile, the Federal Government is reconsidering California's bid for succession from the Union.


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March 14, 2005

Random Morsels

his week's Penguin Dope Slap goes to China. Take that, China:


Can't they just leave well enough alone? More rattling sabers against Taiwan. (I guess this concerns me now that I make trips to both countries.)

China's parliament enacted a law Monday authorizing force to stop rival Taiwan from pursuing formal independence, sparking outrage on the self-governing island and warnings that the measure would fuel regional tensions.

The ceremonial National People's Congress passed the law despite U.S. appeals for restraint. It came a day after President Hu Jintao called on China's military to be ready for war and followed a 12.6 percent increase in the country's defense budget for 2005.

Odd News:

Blog Patrol:

*** Man is certainly stark mad. He cannot make a worm, and yet he will be making gods by dozens. Montaigne

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March 13, 2005

"A Meeting of Minds" Meme

ou may recall Steve Allen's old show, Meeting of Minds, where historical figures like Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Aquinas and Cleopatra would talk together around the table. Of course, Steve would get to talk with them as the moderator of the discussion.

Here's the meme: Name the five historical persons who you would like to spend an evening with (and have them spend it with each other) knowing that each one would truthfully answer all your questions. You might consider a mix of philosophers/religious figures, musicians, artists, writers, politicians, scholars, scientists, etc.

Now. The first five you think of. They have to be dead.

Here are mine.

1) Edward de Vere aka "Shakespeare" (writer/dramatist/poet)

2) Pythagoras (philosopher)

3) Mozart (composer/musician)

4) Shams-i-Tabriz (Persian mystic)

5) Benjamin Franklin (scientist/statesman)

That would be a hell of a conversation.

*** When I discover truth, I will tell you, if telling you still seems important. Ashleigh Brilliant


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What Have the Americans Ever Done for Us?

f you haven't read this one yet, now is the time. Gerard Baker is a columnist for The Times in London. He gets it, and states it eloquently:

ONE OF MY favourite cinematic moments is the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian when Reg, aka John Cleese, the leader of the People’s Front of Judea, is trying to whip up anti-Roman sentiment among his team of slightly hesitant commandos.

“What have the Romans ever done for us?” he asks.

“Well, there’s the aqueduct,” somebody says, thoughtfully. “The sanitation,” says another. “Public order,” offers a third. Reg reluctantly acknowledges that there may have been a couple of benefits. But then steadily, and with increasing enthusiasm, his men reel off a litany of the good things the Romans have wrought with their occupation of the Holy Land.

By the time they’re finished they’re not so sure about the whole insurgency idea after all and an exasperated Reg tries to rally them: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

I can’t help but think of that scene as I watch the contortions of the anti-American hordes in Britain, Europe and even in the US itself in response to the remarkable events that are unfolding in the real Middle East today.


Read the whole thing.

Via Gut Rumbles.

*** People have always drawn this line between people who are technological, and people who have heart or are emotional. To me, there is no distinction. James Cameron

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Richard Mitchell Interview, Pt. 8

art 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8


Illusory Limits

Styles: Isn't there a desired sense of finding the limit? Finding what is precisely the limit of a technology?

Richard: Yes, this is one of the great illusions under which we all labor, that somehow all things are in process, and not just in process, but also in progress, so that at some point there is a culmiination. We imagine that at some point, the universe will, as it were, click into place.

The last star will be discovered; the last physical law will be known; the last...well, you make your own list. This obviously has to be an illusion. Why do I say it obviously has to be an illusion? Well, I think I would go back to Wittgenstein, who I think was here before us earlier.

I think at one point Wittgenstein speculates on whether or not language itself is finite, and of course concludes very easily--he didn't speculate very long--that language is not finite for the following reason. If language were finite, then there is some presumable ultimate utterance.

You and I could perhaps discover it today, and then having made the ultimate utterance, that would be an end of language and everything would be repetition thereafter. However, once the ultimate utterance is discovered, then we can make an utterance about it, which then becomes the post-ultimate utterance, so that there can be no end to language anymore than there can be an end to numbers.

And since technology essentially is language, concretized in certain ways, the same has to be true of it. The ultimate reach of our technology, whatever it is, will simply suggest more reaches. The real problem of being a human being, it may be the thing that vexes us and disorders us so much--we know that we have limits, but we have no way of knowing what those limits are.

I can remember when I was a kid, no one had yet run the four-minute mile, and everybody was looking forward to the four-minute mile. And now, I guess somebody did, and we said, "OK, great," but we did not say, "No, that's it, right there." And now someone has run faster. Now, can this go on forever? Obviously not.

Will somebody run the mile in zero? No, this is not going to happen. Somewhere there is, and we imagine this, somewhere we imagine a boundary, like the speed of sound or some such thing. But we recognize that even to imagine that boundary is absurd. That would require us to say that somewhere there is a natural law which says, "Human beings can move only so fast," so we are clearly limited, but we have no boundaries.


Styles: Wittgenstein says that what we can say we should be able to say clearly, but he also says, "What we can't say?

Richard: "?we shouldn't say at all?

Styles: "?we have to pass over in silence."

Richard: Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, daruber muß man schweigen? schweigen? excellent word.

I'm troubled by that. I'm a big admirer of Wittgenstein because I'm an admirer of smart people, and he is certainly a smart person. But it seems to me, in fact, that most of what we say is what we cannot say. What he meant by that, I'm inclined to suspect, was a kind of very logical positivist sort of thing.

That is to say that certain of our utterances have no meaning, not that they are true or false, but they have no meaning, and when the poet tells us "Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth, this is all you know and all you need to know," we say, "Bull, come on I need to know quite a lot more than that."

Nevertheless, we do say that truth is beauty and that beauty is truth, and we do mean something by it, but we really cannot say it, as we cannot say it in the sense that we can say this be of all in bodies--and I think Wittgenstein wanted to remind us--"Don't shoot off your mouth and be silly." But I think that he was wrong.

It is the business of language to be silly in that respect; it is to make that world about which we really nicht sprechen. There is "no speaking of it," and I think that Wittgenstein's influence, largely because of that very sentence, has in some ways been very baleful.

It has indeed undergirded the notion that literacy is the matter of writing a letter of application for a job. This is essentially to say the same thing, and it also has led to a kind of disintegration of our sensitivity to metaphor.

I wrote recently a sardonic article about somebody and his influence on somebody else, and in the course of it, I used a metaphor. I talked about a meeting in the main street of a small town in the West, where somebody faces down the angry rabble. And furthermore, says that his friend, Pete the Persuader, has just passed into town and maybe they had better talk to him.

Now Pete the Persuader was a little metaphor in this story for this person whom I was quoting. Somebody knew the man, the original, and sent him a copy of the article, and he wrote back saying, "Well, of course I can't be held responsible for what some zany Superintendent of Schools in Tulsa thinks my words mean; however, the future is coming and we can't hide our heads in the sand."

He did say that, but at the end of his letter, he reached the summation of his defense. He said, "Furthermore, I've never been in Tulsa in my life." Now I ask myself, what kind of man is this? How is this man thinking? Does he imagine that I imagined that he was in Tulsa with a six gun on his hip? What on earth is going on here?

Well I know what's going on. The man happens to be what's called a futurist, and he's terribly interested in an imagined society where there is no literacy but still where people are very knowledgeable because they will punch up computers in some way or another. And I think he has immersed himself in the kind of non-metaphoric language that is very popular among us. This is nothing new; it has always been around; it's always been possible.

You remember that Dr. Johnson, who was frightened by the coming of the Romantics--he was frightened by a lot of things, I guess--objected that their language was prosaic and ordinary and that if poetry continued in their tradition, it would end up sounding that way.

And he invented a little example of what poetry would be like in the future because of the romantic poets, and his little quatrain is easy to remember:

I put my hat upon my head, And walked into the Strand, And there I met another man, Whose hat was in his hand.

And that's the entire poem. Now Johnson was wrong about the future of poetry, poetry didn't become that and never will become that, but a lot of language has, in fact, become that.

Styles: Our prose has become that.

Richard: Our prose has become that and there is this very pedestrian literalness in our prose and even our understanding. I have students who cannot?cannot sometimes make any sense of a metaphor.

I had a marvelous example in a class recently on the King James translation of the Bible. Somebody had read, they all had read the Book of Ecclesiastes; didn't find much in it; seemed to be saying all the same thing all the time. They couldn't really distinguish where the text was any different from anywhere else.

I said, "You noticed that the heart of the fool was in the House of Mirth." "Oh, yeah, yeah." "Well, what's that about?" "The same thing, you know; it's in favor of good; it's against evil." And I asked a very simple question, "Now, what exactly is the House of Mirth?"

Complete silence in class. "Is it a house?" Baffled silence continues. Finally he said, "Well, probably not." Probably not. Get that. Probably not. Well this engendered quite a long discussion and finally someone suggested, "It's not really a house at all. It's just a way of talking about something else, and the heart isn't a heart at all either."

And it took a whole class to get at the metaphor, a very simple metaphor. They don't think that way and they haven't been taught that way. They have been taught, What is reading? Reading is that process which leads to comprehension score, and they didn't think that was a fair question because it wouldn't appear on a comprehension test.


Styles: Perhaps they would have even more difficulty understanding what Heidegger means by language being our House of Being.

Richard: Oh yes. This would not be because the word being, you see, is entirely a metaphor, and it has no meaning whatsoever for them. They understand about living. They know they're alive; they're pretty sure of that; but if one would ask them to distinguish between their living and their being, I don't know where they would go.


Styles: Would they go to language?

Richard: Well, no, they wouldn't. They would go to silence. Isn't that interesting? I never thought of it that way, but that's where my class went in the face of the House of Mirth?Silence.

********

End of Interview

Note: I compared the text of the first five parts to the audio supplied to me and made a number of significant changes--additions of text not in the transcript, altered punctuation and emphasis to clarify meaning. You may want to reread these.


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March 12, 2005

Richard Mitchell Interview, Pt. 7

art 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8


Honest and Dishonest Writing

Styles: You mentioned earlier that the audience, the question of the audience, is all important in understanding writing. Particularly when we teach, we say, if we understand with you that language is communication or should not be communication, that we write to other people, but I've often thought that we write for ourselves first, and only thereafter to other people.

And that as we understand that we are writing really for ourselves in this process of self-discovery is the important issue. We learn thereby to write, but also learn thereby that there is something called the spirit of the law as well as the letter of the law, to borrow Jesus's term.

Richard: Yes, I think that is true. Eliot somewhere distinguishes the three voices of writing; that voice in which people speak to each other; the voice in which one speaks to oneself; and the voice in which one speaks to God. And he uses this distinction to make elaborate categories of various kinds of poetry, as I remember. That is, nevertheless, a useful distinction. There is some discourse that is the discourse between us. There is some discourse that I suppose in a way is discourse to God or something like that.

Styles: Prayer.

Richard: Well, not just prayer, but even to think "I should ever live to see such a day," or "What a beautiful morning" when you walk out all alone. There's no one to whom you speak really, but the kind of discourse that we do spend our time with in school, certainly, is the discourse of the self speaking to self. This is the appropriate audience.

Now this raises some interesting questions when students are attentive to it. They say, "Well, look if really my job is to be the self, speaking to the self, I don't care about these dangling modifiers, so why should you?" That raises intriguing questions, because eventually one has to somehow convince students that, in some deep sense, you shouldn't care about the dangling modifiers.

But if those dangling modifiers are, as they so often are, impediments to clear thought, then we do care about them a lot, not because they are dangling modifiers, but because they are impediments to clear thought. And that the so-called conventions of writing are there because writing is not speech, and because it doesn't have the resources of speech, and they serve as convenient crutches, in fact, to this pale imitation of speech; but they?re more convenient ultimately. They are essential.


Styles: Alfred North Whitehead says somewhere that style is the ultimate morality of the mind. I think that's pretty heavy phrase.

Richard: Very heavy?I wonder what he means. I like it.

Styles: Earlier you said that somehow these issues of style, clear writing, being able to share what we have as clearly and quickly and efficiently as possible, is a matter of morality. Just to what extent can you understand this style being the ultimate morality of mind?

Richard: Well, of course, I don't know exactly what he means by style, but I think I do know what most of us would mean by honesty, and when we write, it is a good opportunity to practice dishonesty.

Now by that I don't merely mean an opportunity to say that which is not true. Of course we do that and this is certainly one of the great uses of literacy is to lie and lie in a big and very effective way.

But rather I mean that we do that which is not our own; that when we fall into writing, and we say, "Oh, I am writing writing, and writing goes a certain way, and it sounds a certain way, and it says a certain thing," that we can easily become imitators. And imitators, even of other imitators, which is to say, that we are not making our own judgments--and after all, if we don't make our own judgments, then in a sense, we aren't even living our own lives.

There's another kind of dishonesty that arises from this desire to imitate which is perfectly natural to us all. I can remember the last time I taught writing, I had a horrible experience because somebody asked me about topic sentences, and I said, "Oh yes, topic sentences. Right, I've heard about those. Yes, a topic sentence is part of a paragraph; it's somehow the thing; it's the gist of it, or the beginning of it, or something like that, and I guess the other sentences all sort of hang on it in a way. Yes, that's truly nifty, topic sentence, isn't it?"

However, I couldn't tell them how to come up with a topic sentence. I went home and it occurred to me, you know, I've written I can't tell you how many essays, articles, reviews, all sorts of things, and I have to write all the time as much as I hate it. And never in my life have I been conscious of writing a topic sentence, and I was quite convinced that there would be no topic sentences in any of my writing.

I haven't looked, by the way, and so I don't know if that's true. However, I was paralyzed for almost six weeks after that. I couldn?t write?I couldn't write. I'd start to write and I'd say, "Wait a minute, how can I write this? I don't even know the topic sentence of this paragraph."

Now when we give ourselves to idols like that--it is a kind of idolatry--we fall into the deepest sort of dishonesty. See, if I had fallen into it at that point, I would have said, "Well, now wait a moment; I'm going to learn what a topic sentence is, and I'm going to do it right, and I'm going to do a topic sentence for every single one of my paragraphs, and I'll make a topic sentence outline and so forth."

So that very often our very ways of instructing people in how to write, generate these sluts of dishonesties. Especially when we teach, you know, there's a certain kind of sentence, a periodic sentence, and then there's a nice balanced sentence, and here are some nifty examples.

Well, I don't know how bad that is; it is fun to try those things out, but after all, no writer writes writing. Nobody sits down to write writing. He sits down to write something else; he just has to do it in writing.

In composition courses we dwell so much on writing that people start thinking that that's their job. "Oh, I am now to write writing" and they violate themselves in some way, I think.


Styles: Well, one of the things that we do, of course, is to convert writing into a technology. They say that there is a technique for doing this. In the most fundamental sense, writing is a technology.

Richard: Yes.

Styles: In the root sense of the term, not thinking of the buried metaphor of the term, do you think it's the logos text, it's the wording of the text, and somehow or another, if we can give vent to the root meaning of that technology, it's a liberating thing.

Richard: It is clearly a technology, and it should be a technology, but it is a technology that's obviously without limits. You know the technology that builds us engines has certain limits built into its very nature. The technology by which we write--and in order the to prove this to yourself all you have to do is look at the vast differences that are possible in writing--seems to be open ended.

Yes, there is a technology; yes, there are rudiments; yes, they work; they count; but there seems to be no end to how far these things can be applied. I would think that I imagine the ideal student, yes, although I've never encountered this one but some day, the ideal student would look upon learning the technology of writing as a gateway to a tremendous undiscovered realm, and it is generally undiscovered.

Is there going to come a day when the last possible piece of writing is done? Is the universe going to click at some time? That's it, that's it' we have now finished with the technology of writing? No, this will never happen, so the possibilities are marvelous and they're terribly exciting.


Styles: You mentioned the limits of technology and this being an unlimited form, writing, a technology without limits. In our world today, we constantly are wondering, "Gee, is there going to be a limit to this technology that we have?" in other ways, thinking about practical machines.

Richard: Yes, I wasn't really thinking of technology in general. I was thinking of a technology of the wheel or some such thing. I mean, how round can a wheel be? But a limit to technology in general, of course, is equally unimaginable, except of course that we will, I suspect, destroy ourselves with what we do know before too long.

Richard Mitchell Interview Pt. 8


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March 11, 2005

Richard Mitchell Interview, Pt. 6

art 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8


Making Statements

Styles: Do you think that as more people acquire the ability to make statements for themselves, we can have a better world?

Richard: I doubt it very much, and I would go back to Socrates. I don't think it's my business or yours to seek a better world. In some sense, I hope the world will be better, sure, but it's not my charge. My charge is to be better, and if yours is, and a million other people, then maybe the world will be better, whatever we mean by that, but there is this to be said--the world is continuously dying.

If we made this world a better place tomorrow, what would that matter? What about the day after tomorrow?

I have a feeling it will go its old way, and certainly the philosophers of the past were, I think, notable for their disdain of the world and all questions as to whether or not it was better, because better is a word that goes with good, and they ask themselves, "Where does goodness reside?" and answer it in a very interesting way.

We cannot ascribe goodness or badness to minerals or to trees or even to animals. Goodness is somehow related willing. The tigers don't want to be bad; they don't want to be good; they just want to be tigers; they just tiger around.

Whereas, only you and I can will one thing rather than another. The question is not even whether we can do it; we can will. You and I can will one thing rather than another, so that goodness is an attribute, if it is an attribute only of some human being, only of some individual.

So to assume the world could be better is to assume certain things about the world that are very far from demonstrable. There is, in a sense?ah, you see this is again how language makes the world, but tricks us. There is no world?the world is a word. We say the word, and because we say the word, we believe we have brought an entity into being, or that we are pointing to an entity which is?what is the world?

Do we mean planet? Do we mean all the people on it? Do we mean all the people on it at this time, or at some other time? What the hell do mean by the world? And we treat the world as thought it were an individual, capable of goodness and badness, then we start talking nonsense.


Styles: But as we create ourselves as better forms of ourselves--through writing, through reading, listening, talking, language itself--we create something of value, good for ourselves, and as we can live in our own good worlds, we can perhaps have one in common with others.

Richard: I would hope so, but I don't think that I follow the logic that would require it.

Styles: Writing is clearly a force that can take us away from the world, or into the world, and yet, we live in speech first. A baby and a mother, the children playing together. The philosophers, the religious leaders that start our culture, don't write--Socrates, Jesus. What's the relationship of writing and speech, keeping these people in mind?

Richard: Well, let's say bringing these people into mind in a little while, OK, because I am terribly interested in that relationship, but I am even more interested in the difference, partly because it's a practical interest, partly because it can help students who want to learn to write.

And one of the things that make writing hard is that it isn't speech. It lacks all of the marvelous accessories, the vices of speech; you know, the gestures, the tones of voice, everything, even those things that are non-literate in a way; the hmms and the ahhums, so that, in a sense, speech is natural and writing is artificial.

Furthermore, writing is not speech written down. It's yet another thing, and has its own importance, but the larger and perhaps more important difference between writing and speech has to do, I think, with audience. He who writes, in a sense writes for the world; writes for somebody who doesn't exist, maybe writes for himself in some way.

But the speaker is speaking face to face with another human being, and this is why Socrates and Jesus didn't write. And I would add, and I guess I did, that Jesus also didn't enter into dialogue in the way in which Socrates does. Even when Jesus has a conversation with people, it's not dialectic, as Socrates practices it.

A man comes to him and says, "Master, what shall I do to be saved?" and he says, "Well, surely you've read the prophets." This is not dialectic, and when Jesus speaks, he speaks directly to individuals, and I think he's always making the point that frankly I find very congenial, that the meaning of things is in a person. "You happen to be that person; I am talking to you, but the meaning of things is not in tradition or in orthodox law. You've heard it said of old times that you shouldn't commit adultery. I've got first news for you," he said. "All you have to do is think about it. Where does this sin reside? It resides in the will of you, one person. It does not reside in the tables of the law; it does not reside in the world of language, for that matter; it resides in your will." You as an individual person, which is what makes him so terribly unusual.

I know it is popular to say that, well, Buddha and Socrates and Confucius and Lao Tse and Jesus--they were all very similar people. They all preached versions of the same thing, and we ought to think of them as a kind of committee serving in the same cause.

Is it really true? Of these people, it was Jesus only who actually took the accusing tone that he takes, "You, you, I'm talking about you," and providing very harsh, not precepts, but immediate advice to some person.

Even Buddha--the eightfold way--everybody knows the eightfold way. I think the first step is right thinking. Well, OK, oh good, I'm for right; what do you mean by that? Jesus didn't deal in that kind of abstraction, and at the same time though, remember, what he did deal in still had to be dealt then in language; there is nothing else. And it is as though he was saying to those who listened to him, "Say these things for yourself, and give them a test."

There's a marvelous passage in, I think it's John, it's surely John, of the famous scene where Jesus has brought some woman taken in adultery, and the committee who brings her along, says, "Well, what do we do with this one, Master? She's caught in the act and you know the law."

It's one of those tricks that is so often the case in the Gospels, and Jesus is described at that time as bending over, sitting on a bench or something, and writing in the sand. This is the only time in which Jesus is described as writing, by the way.


Styles: Very interesting.

Richard: And he says, "Oh, well, yes, sure, I know the law. Of course, you should stone her." And I guess they reached out for their stones and he says--I can see him doing it, sort of a double take like Columbo, "Oh, uh, just make sure that he who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone."

Notice what he has, in fact, done right here. He has changed an institutional arrangement into an individual arrangement. "Yes, I do know the law, of course, that's in our institutions; we know that. By all means, let's carry out the law. Let's also go inside of ourselves, and he, the one of you who is without sin, but just make sure that he casts the first stone, somehow, it seems better that way."

And the men who brought the culpritess are obviously decent and thoughtful men; they must be because everyone says in himself, "Ah, well, I am not that one" and little by little they drift away.

This is, of course, it seems terribly remote from considerations of literacy, but I don't think it is. I think that the end of doctrine of literacy is that same kind of self-knowledge. If we don?t have somebody like Jesus around to give us exactly the right clue, at exactly the right time, well, where will we find such a person nearer ourselves?

And we do that by making statements, and statements about statements, and exploring their meaning. There is, of course, all kinds of speculation as to what he was, in fact, writing in the sand there. I think Robert Graves thinks he was drawing a picture, not writing at all, and whether or not this is an act of what we think of as normal literacy by Jesus, I don't know.


Richard Mitchell Interview, Pt. 7


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March 10, 2005

The Worm in the Brain

here's an outrageous but entertaining assertion about language and the human brain in Carl Sagan's Dragons of Eden. It is possible, Sagan says, to damage the brain in precisely such a way that the victim will lose the ability to understand the passive or to devise prepositional phrases or something like that. No cases are cited, unfortunately--it would be fun to chat with some victim--but the whole idea is attractive, because if it were true it would explain many things. In fact, I can think of no better way to account for something that happened to a friend of mine--and probably to one of yours too.

He was an engaging chap, albeit serious. We did some work together--well, not exactly work, committee stuff--and he used to send me a note whenever there was to be a meeting. Something like this: "Let's meet next Monday at two o'clock, OK?" I was always delighted to read such perfect prose.

Unbeknownst to us all, however, something was happening in that man's brain. Who can say what? Perhaps a sleeping genetic defect was stirring, perhaps some tiny creature had entered in the porches of his ear and was gnawing out a home in his cranium. We'll never know. Whatever it was, it had, little by little, two effects. At one and the same time, he discovered in himself the yearning to be an assistant dean pro tem, and he began to lose the power of his prose. Ordinary opinion, up to now, has always held that one of these things, either one, was the cause of the other. Now we can at last guess the full horror of the truth. Both are symptoms of serious trouble in the brain.

Like one of these Poe characters whose friends are all doomed, I watched, helpless, the inexorable progress of the disease. Gradually but inevitably my friend was being eaten from within. In the same week that saw his application for the newly created post of assistant dean pro tem, he sent me the following message: "This is to inform you that there'll be a meeting next Monday at 2:00." Even worse, much worse, was to come.

A week or so later it was noised about that he would indeed take up next semester a new career as a high-ranking assistant dean pro tem. I was actually writing him a note of congratulation when the campus mail brought me what was to be his last announcement of a meeting of our committee. Hereafter he would be frying fatter fish, but he wanted to finish the business at hand. His note read: "Please be informed that the Committee on Memorial Plaques will meet on Monday at 2:00."

I walked slowly to the window, his note in my hand, and stared for a while at the quad. The oak trees there had been decimated not long before by a leak in an underground gas line. The seeping poison had killed their very roots, but they had at least ended up as free firewood for the faculty. Pangloss might have been right, after all, and, calamity that it was, this latest message spared me the trouble of writing the congratulatory note and even afforded me a glimpse of a remarkably attractive young lady straying dryad-fashion through the surviving oaks. Things balance out.

You would think, wouldn't you, that the worm or whatever had at last done its work, that the poor fellow's Hydification was complete and his destruction assured. No. It is a happy mercy that most of us cannot begin to imagine the full horror of these ravaging disorders. To this day that man still sends out little announcements and memos about this and that. They begin like this: "You are hereby informed . . ." Of what, I cannot say, since a combination of delicacy and my respect for his memory forbid that I read further.

It's always a mistake to forget William of Occam and his razor. Look first for the simplest explanation that will handle the facts. I had always thought that perfectly normal human beings turned into bureaucrats and administrators and came to learn the language of that tribe through some exceedingly complicated combination of nature and nurture, through imitative osmosis and some flaw of character caused by inappropriate weaning. Piffle. These psychologists have captured our minds and led us into needless deviousness. The razor cuts to the heart of things and reveals the worm in the brain.

Admittedly, that may be a slight oversimplification. It may be that the decay of language and the desire to administrate are not merely concomitant symptoms of one and the same disease, but that one is a symptom and the other a symptom of the symptom. Let's imagine what deans, who like to imitate government functionaries, who, in their turn, like to imitate businessmen, who themselves seem to like to imitate show-business types, would call a "scenario."

There you sit, minding your own business and hurting no man. All at once, quite insensibly, the thing creeps into your brain. It might end up in the storage shelves of the subjunctive or the switchboard of the nonrestrictive clauses, of course, but in your case it heads for the cozy nook where the active and passive voices are balanced and adjusted. There it settles in and nibbles a bit here and a bit there. In our present state of knowledge, still dim, we have to guess that the active voice is tastier than the passive, since the destruction of the latter is very rare but of the former all too common.

So there you are with your active verbs being gnawed away. Little by little and only occasionally at first, you start saying things like: "I am told that . . ." and "This letter is being written because . . ." This habit has subtle effects. For one thing, since passives always require more words than actives, anything you may happen to write is longer than it would have been before the attack of the worm. You begin to suspect that you have a lot to say after all and that it's probably rather important. The suspicion is all the stronger because what you write has begun to sound--well, sort of "official." "Hmm," you say to yourself, "Fate may have cast my lot a bit below my proper station," or, more likely, "Hmm. My lot may have been cast by Fate a bit below my proper station."

Furthermore, the very way you consider the world, or the very way in which the world is considered by you, is subtly altered. You used to see a world in which birds ate worms and men made decisions. Now it looks more like a world in which worms are eaten by birds and decisions are made by men. It's almost a world in which victims are put forward as "doers" responsible for whatever may befall them and actions are almost unrelated to those who perform them. But only almost. The next step is not taken until you learn to see a world in which worms are eaten and decisions made and all responsible agency has disappeared. Now you are ready to be an administrator.

This is a condition necessary to successful administration of any sort and in any calling. Letters are written, reports are prepared, decisions made, actions taken, and consequences suffered. These things happen in the world where agents and doers, the responsible parties around whose throats we like our hands to be gotten, first retreat to the remoter portions of prepositional phrases and ultimately disappear entirely. A too-frequent use of the passive is not just a stylistic quirk; it is the outward and visible sign of a certain weltanschauung.

And now that it is your weltanschauung (remember the worm has been gnawing all this time), you discover that you are suited to the life of the administrator. You'll fit right in.

Therefore, we may say that it is not the worm in the skull that causes deans and managers and vice presidents, at least not directly. The worm merely causes the atrophy of the active and the compensatory dominance of the passive. (Through a similar compensatory mechanism, three-legged dogs manage to walk, and the language of the typical administrator is not very different from the gait of the three-legged dog, come to think of it.) The dominance of the passive causes in the victim an alteration of philosophy, which alteration is itself the thing that both beckons him to and suits him for the work of administration. And there you have it. Thanks to Carl Sagan and a little help from William of Occam, we understand how administrators come to be.

You may want to object that a whole view of the world and its meanings can hardly be importantly altered by a silly grammatical form. If so, you're just not thinking. Grammatical forms are exactly the things that make us understand the world the way we understand it. To understand the world, we make propositions about it, and those propositions are both formed and limited by the grammar of the language in which we propose.

To see how this works, let's imagine an extreme case. Suppose there is after all a place in the brain that controls the making and understanding of prepositional phrases. Suppose that Doctor Fu Manchu has let loose in the world the virus that eats that very place, so that in widening circles from Wimbledon mankind loses the power to make and understand prepositional phrases. Now the virus has gotten you, and to you prepositional phrases no longer make sense. You can't read them, you can't write them, you can't utter them, and when you hear them you can only ask "Wha?" Try it. Go read something, or look out the window and describe what you see. Tell the story of your day. Wait . . . you can't exactly do that . . . tell, instead, your day-story. Recite how you went working . . . how morning you went . . . no . . . morning not you . . . morning went . . . how you morning went ... The rest will be silence.

Only through unspeakable exertion and even ad hoc invention of new grammatical arrangements can we get along at all without the prepositional phrase, as trivial as that little thing seems to be. It's more than that. Should we lose prepositional phrases, the loss of a certain arrangement of words would be only the visible sign of a stupendous unseen disorder. We would in fact have lost prepositionalism, so to speak, the whole concept of the kind of relationship that is signaled by the prepositional phrase. We'd probably be totally incapacitated.

Try now to imagine the history of mankind without the prepositional phrase, or, if you're tired of that, the relative clause or the distinction between subject and object. It would be absurd to think that lacking those and other such things the appearance and growth of human culture would have been merely hindered. It would have been impossible. Everything that we have done would have been simply impossible. The world out there is made of its own stuff, but the world that we can understand and manipulate and predict is made of discourse, and discourse is ruled by grammar. Without even so elementary a device as the prepositional phrase we'd be wandering around in herds right now, but we wouldn't know how to name what we were doing.

We're inclined to think of things like prepositional phrases as though they were optional extras in a language, something like whitewall tires. This is because we don't spend a lot of time dwelling on them except when we study a language not our own. We study German, and here comes a lesson on the prepositional phrase. Great, now we can add something to our German. That's the metaphor in our heads; we think--there is German, it exists, and when you get good at it you can add on the fancy stuff like prepositional phrases. All we have to do is memorize the prepositions and remember which ones take the dative and which ones take the accusative and which ones sometimes take the one and sometimes the other and when and why and which ones are the exceptions. Suddenly it becomes depressing. How about we forget the whole thing and settle for your stripped-down basic model German without any of the fancy stuff? If you do that, of course, you'll never find the Bahnhof. You'll be stymied in Stuttgart.

Like prepositional phrases, certain structural arrangements in English are much more important than the small bones of grammar in its most technical sense. It really wouldn't matter much if we started dropping the s from our plurals. Lots of words get along without it anyway, and in most cases context would be enough to indicate number. Even the distinction between singular and plural verb forms is just as much a polite convention as an essential element of meaning. But the structures, things like passives and prepositional phrases, constitute, among other things, an implicit system of moral philosophy, a view of the world and its presumed meanings, and their misuse therefore often betrays an attitude or value that the user might like to disavow.

There's an example from the works of a lady who may also have a worm in her brain. She is "the chair" of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It's very short and seems, to those willing to overlook a "small" grammatical flaw, almost too trivial to be worthy of comment. She writes: "Instead of accepting charges indiscriminately and giving them docket numbers, charging parties are counseled immediately."

"Charging parties" are probably faster than landing parties and larger than raiding parties, but no matter. She means, probably, people who are bringing charges of some sort, but there are many kinds of prose in which people become parties. It's not really meant to sound convivial, though: it's meant to sound "legal." What's important is that the structure of her sentence leads us to expect that the people (or parties) named first after that comma will also be the people (or parties) responsible for doing the "accepting." We expect something like: "Instead of doing that, we now do this." That's not because of some rule; it's just the way English works. It both reflects and generates the way the mind does its business in English. We, the readers, are disappointed and confused because somebody who ought to have shown up in this sentence has in fact not appeared. What has become of the accepting parties? Are they hanging around the water cooler? Do they refuse to accept? Are they at least hoping, that no one will remember that they are supposed to accept? We can guess, of course, that they are the same people who make up the counseling parties, who have also disappeared into a little passive. It's as though we went charging down to the EEOC and found them all out to lunch.

Well, that could have been a slip of the mind, the mind of the chair, of course, but later we read: "Instead of dealing with charging parties and respondents through formalistic legal paper, the parties are called together within a few weeks. . ."

It's the same arrangement. Who does that dealing, or, since that's what they did before the "instead," who did that dealing through "formalistic" paper? Wouldn't they be the same parties who ought to do the calling together? Where have they all gone?

A schoolteacher would call those things examples of dangling modifiers and provide some rules about them, but that's not important. What's important is that those forms are evocations of that imagined world in which responsible agency is hardly ever visible, much to the comfort of responsible agency. Since that is the nature of the world already suggested by the passive voice, you would expect that this writer, or chair, would be addicted to the passive. You'd be right. Here are the bare skeletons of a few consecutive sentences:

. . . staff is assigned . . .
. . . cases are moved . . .
. . . parties are contacted . . .
. . . files are grouped . . . and prioritized . . .
. . . steps are delineated . . . and time frames established . . .
. . . discussions are encouraged . . .

You have to wonder how much of a discussion you could possibly have with these people. They're never around.

Admittedly, it does these bureaucrats some credit that in their hearts they are ashamed to say that they actually do those things that they do. After all, who would want to tell the world that he, himself, in his very flesh, goes around grouping and prioritizing?

The dangling modifiers go well with the passives, and, in suggesting the nature of the world as seen by bureaucrats, they even add something new. The passives are sort of neutral, verbal shoulder-shrugs--these things happen--what can I tell you? The danglers go the next obvious and ominous step and suggest subtly that those charging parties have caused a heap of trouble and really ought to be handed the job of sorting things out for themselves, which, grammatically, is exactly what happens. In the first example the people who do the accepting and the counseling ought to appear right after the comma, but they don't. In the second, the people who do the dealing and the calling ought to appear right after the comma, but they don't. In both cases the people who do appear are the clients on whose behalf someone is supposed to accept, counsel, deal, and call. Does that mean something about the way in which those clients are regarded by this agency? They seem to have been put in some kind of grammatical double jeopardy, which is probably unconstitutional.

The poor lady, or chair, has inadvertently said what she probably meant. Working for the government would be so pleasant if it weren't for those pesky citizens. A waspish psychiatrist might observe that she has taken those charging parties and has "put them in their place" with a twist of grammar, thus unconsciously expressing her wish that they ought to be responsible for all the tedious labor their charges will cost her and her friends. She herself, along with the whole blooming EEOC, has withdrawn behind a curtain of cloudy English from the clash of charging parties on the darkling plain. "Ach so, sehr interessant, nicht wahr, zat ze patzient ist immer py ze Wort 'inshtead' gonvused. Es gibt, vielleicht, a broplem of, how you zay, Inshteadness." And indeed, the result of the dangling modifiers is to put the charging parties forth instead of someone else, as though the word had been chosen to stand out in front of the sentence as a symbol of the latent meaning.

Surely this lady, or chair, is an educated person, or chair, perfectly able to see and fix dangling modifiers of the sort they used to deal with in the early grades. After all, she has been hired as a chair, and for such a position we can assume some pretty high standards and stringent requirements. All right, so she doesn't know the difference between "formal" and "formalistic"--big deal. When such a high-ranking official of our government apparatus makes a mistake in structure, and habitually at that, it's not much to the point to underline it and put an exclamation mark in the margin. In a small child these would be mistakes; in a chair they are accidental revelations of a condition in the mind. To put the name of the thing modified as close as possible to the modifier is not a "rule" of English; it is a sign of something the mind does in English. When the English doesn't do that thing, it's because the mind hasn't done it.

It would be fatuous for us to say that we don't understand those sentences because of the disappearance of the people who are supposed to do all those things. It is a schoolteacher's cheap trick to say that if you don't get your grammar right people won't understand you. It's almost impossible to mangle grammar to that point where you won't be understood. We understand those sentences. In fact, we understand them better than the writer; we understand both what she thought she was saying and something else that she didn't think she was saying.

Many readers, of course, would "understand" those sentences without even thinking of the problem they present, and they might think these comments pedantic and contentious. Oh, come on, what's all the fuss? A couple of little mistakes. What does it matter? We all know what she means, don't we?

Such objections come from the erroneous idea that the point of language is merely to communicate, "to act your ideas across," whatever that means. Furthermore, such objectors may think that they are defending a hardworking and well-meaning chair, but she is little likely to be grateful for their partisanship if she figures out what it means. They say, in effect, that her little mistakes are just that, little mistakes rather than inadvertent and revealing slips of the mind. In the latter case, however, we can conclude that she is merely a typical bureaucrat with an appropriately managerial twist in the brain; in the former we would simply have to conclude that she is not well enough educated to be allowed to write public documents. Which of these conclusions do you suppose she would prefer? It seems that we must choose one or the other. Those are either mistakes made in ignorance or mistakes made in something other than ignorance.

The mind, thinking in English, does indubitably push modifiers and things modified as close together as possible. Can there really be a place in the brain where that happens, a function that might be damaged or dulled? It doesn't matter, of course, because there is surely a "place" in the mind analogous to the imagined place in the brain.

Whether by worms or world-views, it does seem sometimes to be invaded and eaten away. The malfunctions we can see in this chair and in my erstwhile friend, now an assistant dean pro tem, are small inklings of a whole galaxy of disorders that has coalesced out of the complicated history of language, of our language in particular, and out of the political history of language in general.

*****

from Richard Mitchell's Less Than Words Can Say (Chapter One)

I'm ill today, so I am posting this classic to keep you entertained. I will still try to get Part 6 of the Richard Mitchell interview later today, if I fel up to it.

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March 9, 2005

Richard Mitchell Interview, Pt. 5

art 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8


Language Is Metaphor

Styles: You mentioned something earlier about metaphor in language, and getting back to Emerson. I recall an essay, I think it's in the language section of Nature, he says that all language in its infancy is poetry, and that what we have with us nowadays are a bunch of dead metaphors in our language.

And it occurs to me that the joy you speak of, somehow or other, has to do with putting the two together. Saying that love is a rose, or a car is a lemon, and that somehow or other if we only could recapture the spirit of poetry in language, the metaphorical quality of language, we would recover some of the joy in reading and writing.


Richard: Yes, especially in writing. I would think that students must find writing tedious; I know students find writing very tedious, and I think one of the reasons they find it tedious is that as soon as they sit down to a page of blank paper, they put upon themselves this requirement.

They say, "Oh, I am expected now to sound like writing. Oh yeah, I sort of know what writing sounds like. I've read some, and it had that sound." And it does ordinarily have that sound, and it's not the sound of speech, and it shouldn't be. And so they say, "I will now try to sound like writing," which is what gives us the horrors they perpetrate. And they do sound like writing, but, you know, writing like baboons or some such things.

The vivacity, the life of the language is all gone out of it, and indeed, vivacity seems often to be gone out of their speech as well. You know, everything is either "cool" or "a bummer," and there are no gradations between "cool" and "bummer," one being "good," the other "bad," but I'm not sure which.

The importance of metaphor?well, I've put that in the wrong way?it isn't just that metaphor is important in language, language is metaphor; it is entirely metaphor.

That is, the basis of language is this: that I can make a certain kind of sound and it will stand for something else in the world. And then I go the next step and say, "I can also make other sounds which don't even stand for something in the world."

Language is bigger--far, far, bigger--than the world, and we create a world of language which has no existence. If human beings were obliterated, as they very well may be, a massive universe disappears with them; the whole universe of discourse and idea that we have elaborated for all of our history, so that when language is either lacking in metaphor, or when the metaphors have ceased to have any influence or effect on us any more, then it does become a drab sterile exercise.

I think a lot of writing is taught that way.

I can remember that one of the traditional assignments in a writing course was The Description. Another was The Reportorial Account of an Event, and so forth. Notice what's being done here, really, language is being assumed as a form of communication, and you don't know what a framus looks like, and I do know what a framus looks like. And then, what is the point of this, that you will then know what a framus looks like?

In fact, if I wanted you to know what a framus looks like, I would take pains to find you one and show it to you and not bother describing it. But the burden of that sort of assignment on the student comes from the fact that students know it must be metaphor without ever having said this to themselves.

This is an awful restraint. This is a terrible artificiality in this sort of thing.


Styles: True, but that's what we are; we live in language constantly, and the metaphors that we produce in poetry?

Richard: Well, yes?

Styles: ?the words that we live by would stand for something out there in the real world to which we could point. I could bring you a framus , whatever a framus is?

Richard: I don't know either.

Styles: ?you could bring me one, show me what it is and say, that's it. But still, we've used this?


Richard: No. But you see, that's not what language is for. I've made the point somewhere, in one of these books or something, that after all language is what we use for talking about the invisible world; that we really need very little language to talk about the visible world; that, indeed, I can't show you a framus .

Should a lion attack us in this room, you do not need to be informed of that. What I need language for is to warn you, see, that there was a lion come through here yesterday, and this is about the same time that he might come through. Now notice, this is the invisible world, the world of the past; the worlds of the future are at issue here; these worlds are not accessible to experience.

Styles: But they are accessible through language, through memory for the past, and through imagination of the future.

Richard: But you see it is for those things that we need language. We don't need language to define this world as it is now. We also, of course, can define and do regularly define, through language, another world, a world which has never had and never will have any real existence.

The world of ideas, the world of possibilities, the world of values and judgments; these things don't have any practical existence. We can never show them to one another; we can never encounter them, but it is a very, very real world that we have made.


Styles: But there are real worlds that we encounter through language, and it's precisely in mastering language itself, or having it master us, that somehow, we become aware of these. We give account of ourselves that way.

Richard: Well, yes, if language masters us, it defines our world for us; if we can master language, then we can create a world.

Styles: And only by creating a world, not merely living and responding to one already created by other people?

Richard: I wonder if it is a genuine form of creativity. I?no, it's probably not. That is a badly overused word, and I guess, technically, it means "to create," "to make out of nothing at all." And we make things out of other things, so that we're not really creative in that sense.

But we certainly do make worlds that never would have been if it hadn't been for our power of language. And those worlds are very real and very powerful., even if we stopped with the worlds of fiction.

Certainly the worlds of fiction are stronger than the worlds that we live in. Lust, greater passions, they inspire us more deeply; they depress us even more deeply, if they want to. There is a strength in the world of fiction that?it's just not in our world. This [world] is random and disordered, and in which there is no feeling of tying together. Who would say that that is not reality?

Styles: I think it's Robert Frost, who says somewhere, that poetry is what he used as a momentary stay against confusion?

Richard: Oh, I didn't know he said that, but that sounds like a nice thing to do.


Styles: ?and what we're doing constantly, when we use language, is to create this little ordered world in which we can live, perhaps, to protect ourselves from the disorder of the real world in which we find ourselves, day in and day out. And only by having that ordered world, only by having poetry to remember--Robert Frost to remember, Emerson to remember, or those authors that we're living with right now--science fiction is an example, many people live, I think, in science fiction worlds constantly?

Richard: ?that is true, yes?

Styles: ?and sometimes in ways that show the power of language to distort what we would call reality, as well as to illuminate and define.

Richard: Oh yes. Well, the power of language is, of course, not confined to literature. After all, every war that has been fought has been caused by language, has been caused by a series of statements.

There is nothing else at the root of human behavior than the statements that we make about ourselves, and what statements we make determine our destinies in some way.

If we live by the statements made for us by others, then we have a certain kind of destiny; if we live by the statements that we ourselves can generate, we may have a different kind of destiny, except that we almost die, I suppose.

Richard Mitchell Interview, Pt. 6


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Words and Meanings

onah Goldberg explores Justice Kennedy's Mind and provokes us with what it means to interpret the U.S. Constitution. Here's the opening paragraphs. (No, there are no typos in the first paragraph.)


Imagine you were asked to protect, uphold, and defend the framfra of the United States of America. Or ask yourself, What if you were appointed to faithfully execute the queenestray of the land?

You'd be forgiven if, before holding up your right hand, you asked, "Uh, what's a framfra?" or "Could you explain what a queenestray is?" After all, you wouldn't want to take an oath that required you to kill puppies or watch Carrot Top movies. Mature, sensible people generally don't agree to obligations they don't understand.

But that is precisely what our elected and appointed leaders are asked to do today. When taking office, they swear an oath to protect, defend, and enforce the Constitution of the United States. Yet it is becoming more and more difficult to say exactly what that means. Sure, on one level, anybody can read what the Constitution says. But, apparently, knowing what it says doesn't necessarily mean we know what it means.

This article points to areas I will explore later in the series of posts Evil Dictionaries and Money. Where should meaning reside in law and courts? To what extent do we allow changing definitions in the minds of humans, and when do we hold those minds to external language? Is it proper to amend the Constitution without resorting to its stated means of amending it?

Stay tuned. (More Richard Mitchell to come.)

*** I'm going two-level with you.


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March 8, 2005

Richard Mitchell Interview, Pt. 4

art 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8


Why We Read

Styles: This calls to mind what Virginia Woolf said in her book, The Second Common Reader. She suggested that if one wishes to get an idea of what it's like for a novelist to write a particular passage about a person, that person should sit down and try himself to write, and that only by learning how to write do we understand truly how to read.

Richard: Oh, I like it.

Styles: So you're suggesting that perhaps the learning how to write is not learned just to communicate with other people, but really to learn how other people have written in this process of exploration and discovering themselves in this world.

Richard: Oh yes, of course, and that is good, but that shouldn't be the end goal, to learn how other people have written, but rather to learn about yourself. Because the more skill you have of this, the more you can learn about yourself, which is your business, and the more you can learn--well, learning about yourself sounds like an egocentric thing. Oh, all of myself, let me explore my wonderful self.

I suppose it is practiced in this way in some sense, but that's not what I mean by it. After all, the ultimate business of our lives is making judgments, is determining what is worthy and what is unworthy. It is in effect choosing between good and evil.

Now, we can do this on the basis of all that has been suggested to us, as I did with the word "purely," when I wrote "purely theoretical considerations." Or we can do it--we hope, we imagine, we have been told--from within.

We can do it by making a series of judgments of our own, by asking the right questions, which is partly also phrasing the right questions. This is linguistic, by answering the questions, by phrasing the questions that arise from the answers, and therefore making judgments.

I forget who said it, Andre Gide, one of those French novelists: "We have this choice; we can either"?well, I think he puts it perhaps this way: "If we do not live as we think, then we are required to think as we live." And we live in a random and disorderly way. We live as responders, reactors to stimuli. So unless we take hold and make thinking the first thing, we are going to have to think in the very same way. And it seems to me that there is a kind of important human fulfillment in living in the first way.

You know, I've had students ask me, actually ask me--and by the way I think it's a very good sign when they do when we study matters like this, say perhaps as a result of reading an essay by Emerson--"Yes, I can see that it would be perhaps possible to get hold of your mind and to work it in an orderly fashion, and to think for yourself, and to decide whether or not judgments are yours or imposed upon you; I can see that you might do that, but what would be the point of it?"

They think quite honestly what would be the point of it. They say, "Look, I'm going to be an electrical engineer and I intend to work for such and such a firm, and I intend to have a house on the beach, and what would really be the point of this frankly quite onerous process? The end result of literacy? The process by which we learn to think for ourselves?"

I never answer the question. I always say, "I don't know. It's just an interesting possibility, isn't it?" Because I am confident that the person who asks the question will find some point in it sooner or later. But they are few and far between, and I think by and large our students don't even think to ask what that point is, because they are taught and we teach them, and this is through our pretense at literacy that we teach them this, that literacy is entirely pragmatic, that you read so that you can do something.

You read so that you can have some knowledge that you didn't have before. You read so that you will get on in your job. You read for any number of aims, which is why, for instance, all reading is measured by what is called "comprehension tests"--from my way of thinking, an absolutely irrelevant criterion.

Since Emerson is in mind, I've had an experience recently with a bunch of students reading Emerson.


Styles: What essay were they reading?

Richard: This was Self-Reliance, and they had never read it before. And furthermore, they had never read anything like it before, because it's a terribly dense piece. Now, there's no padding, there's no coasting, there's no description, there's no resting place. Every sentence follows, somehow, inexorably on every other, and the same is true of the paragraph.

However, we did read it very closely, and with great attention. And frankly, they were terribly impressed by it in some ways. But they admitted that it was hard to understand, very hard for them to understand, and so I admitted that it was hard to understand. That I had first read it 25 years ago and I found it hard to understand, and I read it again a year later and found it hard to understand, and I read it this year and I found it hard to understand.

I found it differently hard to understand, and if I should ever come to comprehension, if I could get in the 99 percentile on my comprehension of Emerson's essay, I would be terribly surprised indeed. Because a thoughtful piece of writing is endless; it continuously provokes. It is not my comprehension just now that is at issue; that is not its business.

Its business is something quite different from that. I will never understand it; furthermore, if I had waited, you see, as our schools traditionally do, if I had waited to reach the right reading level, then I would still be waiting and I will wait a long, long time. I see nothing wrong with young people, children, being baffled by a piece of reading; nothing wrong with it at all?fine.


Styles: Before we began, you suggested that when you read, you read things that you've read before. And you've just said that you have read and reread again and again Emerson's essay on Self-Reliance. You still do not comprehend it. It is my impression that you are going to read it again, and you're going to read it again and again and again. Why do you come back to it? What is it in his writing that would induce rereading, and why would anyone really want to reread it?

Richard: Well, I have to use a strange word, but I'm going to use it: joy. There is again and again in reading, say, something like Self-Reliance, that moment when suddenly you understand something that you never understood before. You see something in a way in which you've never seen it before, and there is joy in that.

You know, I'm convinced that?I think it's Aristotle in this case. I get those old Greeks mixed up, and you can be convinced that it was he who said that all men--he would have said "all people" if women had been invented in his time, but women are recent inventions--that all men by nature desire to know.

Now, it's very easy to look at the world around us and say, "Forget it, Aristotle, we see no sign of that." But I think any school teacher can see why Aristotle was right. Because I have seen it, you have seen it, in that moment in aclass--you don't know when it's going to happen, or maybe after class--when a student suddenly understands, but more than understands, knows that he understands something that he did not understand before.

There was a fresh unimaginable rush of joy that goes with this. And it is not only a pleasure--sometimes perhaps it's the pleasure, and I believe Aristotle was right.

Now in order to prevent people from wanting to know, we have to do a lot of things to them. To do them, I think, it is the business of our schools to inhibit this desire to know, partly because our schools are agencies of the government, and in the deepest sense, it's not really useful for our government.

And so we do tell each other and our students, "Look, this is all you need to know. You learn a little bit of this and learn a little bit of that, and learn these facts. Facts are very, very cheap and anybody can know them, so go ahead and know them, in order to prevent that kind of rush of joy which is in the long run subversive."


Richard Mitchell Interview, Pt. 5


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An Unpopular President

e's probably been the most criticized President ever.

A large portion of the American public hated him.

He got us into a war that was regarded as unnecessary by members of both political parties.

He was re-elected to everyone's surprise, continuing the war, which divided the country more than any time in history.

Yet, he is now one of the most popular Presidents ever.

Of course, I am talking about Abraham Lincoln.

*** "If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how - the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what's said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference." The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House by Francis B. Carpenter (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1995), pp. 258-259.


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March 7, 2005

Richard Mitchell Interview, Pt. 3

art 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8


The Purpose of Writing

Styles: Well, the notion that Nietzsche brings up that Jesus and Socrates are "they who did not write."

Richard: They did not write, no. Northrup Frye, by the way, importantly makes that point in his new book on the Bible. But Plato says that if we teach these students to write, then they will write, and if they write, they will stop using their memories, and their memories will atrophy, and they ought to be able to keep a long, long line of argument in their heads, and writing for Plato is just a crutch.

Styles: It's a crutch, but the same argument is being made today with respect to electronic communications, electronic instruments that--like the word processor and things like that--that somehow, these new things are coming along and are?

Richard: Oh, well no, I don't think that is the same argument. I think it's very different. I think, you see, in the case of Plato's argument, we have to remember that Plato was a genius, and it's a very bad idea to take practical advice from geniuses. Probably, Plato could do that; I can't do that, you see. I need writing, my own, and other peoples.


Styles: You need the crutch, is what you're saying.

Richard: To keep my mind in order, yes, of course.

Styles: But the thing that happens when we write, it would seem to me, is to give us a chance to look at our words, to hold a great many more things in mind at any one time than a memory can hold, and that it opens up to us a new way of handling language, and giving us over to language in a way that we can't be given over to in speech.

To speak is to lose words in the air, but to hold on to those words on a page is to look at them and to say, yeah, I've seen a development of a line of thought that wouldn't otherwise have occurred to me.

Richard: Is that a bad thing?

Styles: That's not a bad thing, but what I'm suggesting is then, what is the relationship between face-to-face speech and the communication of the community that we develop from, and not face-to-face writing. The writer sits alone at his desk, he writes. He expects someone down the line to take time to sit. The great enemy of reading, we say, is sleep, and if you're going to write well, you're going to be able to overcome that tendency to sleep in the chair.

Richard: I wonder if the writer really does write to someone else. Now, of course, his work is completely vain unless someone reads him.


Styles: You're raising the issue of whom I'm writing for.

Richard: Yeah, anyone who has written knows this one thing about it--it is the most painful occupation that most of us normally encounter?

Styles: ?and it's slavery of the pen.

Richard: ...and its painfulness arises from its loneliness. There is nothing more lonely than composing a piece of writing. I often stop right in the middle of a sentence. I don't even wait for a comma because I decide that it would probably be better to go and retile the bathroom than do this; it's such a hateful work, but that loneliness is an important part of writing, because the business of writing is in some ways an outward symbol of the inner business of thought.

Thinking is possible only to the mind alone; committees don't think; task forces don?t think; Congress doesn't think--of course, that I suppose goes without saying--only a mind alone can think, which is furthermore to say that only a mind alone can learn.

In a way, a class can never be taught anything, really strictly speaking. Only some minds in that class, and the process of writing is a wonderful paradigm of the whole larger process of learning, because it is as though you went into dialogue with yourself. You write a sentence, and there it stands; it does not fly away as a spoken sentence does.

There it stands with a lot of empty paper underneath it. It calls you; it rebukes you; it reminds you; it requires you; and the you that is being required is already a different you from the you that has written that sentence, that in a sense was another you, a you of the past--in that sense, another mind. So the mind of you now must make the proper response, must go on from there, and this process is a kind of continual exploration.

I don't teach writing myself except very rarely. I think every four or five semesters, I draw a section of our special expository writing course for English majors, and when I do teach it, I hate it, because I'm no good at it, absolutely no good at it. And of course, I console myself with the theory that writing cannot be taught. But at least I do try this when I teach it, try to suggest that the purpose of learning to write is probably not clear to most of my students.

They have been told that one reason to learn to write is to write that damn letter of application for a job, and of course, it would be nice if you could spell things correctly in that letter. They have been told that the purpose of writing is to communicate and, of course, I don't believe in that.

I try to urge on them that the purpose of writing is exploration. That every piece of writing is a kind of adventure into the dark unknown; the very heart of darkness, which is where you will eventually have to end up.

I do not want my students to be writers; I really don't. I don?t think we teach students to write in order that they become writers. I'm a writer; I make money writing; I don't need any more competition, thank you. No, I don't even want them to be writers.

But if I ask a student to sit and think about something, his mind will very quickly wander, as mine will. I have an attention span, I have measured it, of twelve seconds exactly; that's maximum. It's usually less than that, but the continuous rebuke, the reminder of the written page, enforces this exploration, and perhaps enforces habits which might eventually give some specially gifted person an attention span of more than twelve seconds.


Styles: Are you suggesting here that a person who learns to write, even though he may not in his own work use writing regularly, still learns something from that process, from the ability to write?

Richard: I have to believe its true, and one of the things he learns, perhaps, is how to read. Now those things probably should go the other way around. We should probably learn to read in some way prior to our learning to write?

Styles: I think we should do that anyway.

Richard: ?just as we learn to hear prior to our speaking. I'm not sure we do that. I think, by and large, we never learn to read, but having learned to write, or having given a great deal of attention to the care and precision and selection, and the judgment that goes into a good writing, I think we are more attentive to it in reading.

Not that we can now read, because this is really an idle point, not that we can now see exactly how Emerson gets a certain effect, or why Gibbon can sound so sarcastic while saying the most obvious things. No, not that.

But that the reading itself becomes more of an enlarging experience for us, and that the reading, I suppose, also becomes more of a pleasure for us, and because now it's as though we were at home in this world of judgment about words.

The problem of reading is inescapably connected to the problem of writing. I think we never learn to read in the full sense of the word. Never. I don't know, there may be some who do.

Richard Mitchell Interview, Pt. 4

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March 6, 2005

Richard Mitchell Interview, Pt. 2

art 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8


What is Literacy

Styles: This is interesting. The German philosopher Heidegger argues that we don't use language, rather language uses us.

Richard: Yes, this can indeed be true.

Styles: Would you give an example of that? You said something thoughtlessly, and all of a sudden you discovered in looking at the words on the page that you've said it and then you stand and you look at it and you say, Hey, I don't want to say that. Something has caused me to say that, a clich鮦lt;/em> You know, a use we have of language that is not your own.

Richard: See, but then you would go behind that and ask, "Why does this cliché ¥xist in the first place? What organized frame of thought is there which makes this so attractive and so acceptable?" And then you discover a great many more things about yourself and the culture in which you live, but the Heidegger aphorism is a good one.

Language does use us, and probably one of the things we ought to mean by literacy is the reversal of that fact. Of course, our language uses us, all of it. All of its slogans, all of its suggestions, its very grammar and syntax use us and enforce upon us certain ways of thinking.

The literate person would be one who has gotten beyond that barrier in some way, or at least is aware that language is using him, and therefore, pays a certain kind of thoughtful attention--I was about to say and I would say thoughtful discretion--to it, because discretion is the business of making things discreet.


Styles: A kind of discretionary attention to language is what we are looking for.

Richard: Yes, and the ability to write an application for a job, which is, I believe, the highest imaginable goal of the minimum competence movement, is not close; it's not close to literacy, nor is the ability to read a want ad.

In its highest sense, literacy is a profoundly destructive talent. It is destructive certainly of all received opinion; it is destructive of all orthodoxy, all traditionalism, and, therefore, from a government's point of view, it is very undesirable.

Styles: Well, in your case, you wrote something?you say on the force of language, which, because of the force of your own literacy, you could question, you become more self-critical of yourself as well as critical of your own language.

Richard: Well, ourselves are the only things of which we ought justly to be critical. Socrates says somewhere among his other inflammatory things, I think it's in the Gorgias, probably the best life is to mind your own business. And he says it in almost a snide moment, but I think he means it quite seriously, too.

Our own business is the only business we have any business to mind, and rather than rushing around to make the world a better place, Socrates seems to suggest, first sit down and make yourself a better person; that is your business.

And I would say of literacy that literacy is, among other things, that skill by which we can pursue our own business. Examine the work of our own minds; judge between what is worthy and unworthy. It is a great deal more than reading and writing.

Styles: Your own work, here at home, is to produce a little paper called The Underground Grammarian. You have your own press; you have your own mailing list, your own readers and subscribers, and you yourself suggest that it's a kind of subversive activity. How did you start?

Richard: Well, that began?oh, it began quite some time ago now. We are in the middle of Volume 6, which is really surprising, since with each issue I expected there would be no more.

It began in the bicentennial year, and it began really as not much more than a lark. I had been--every teacher has this experience--I had been vexed for years by the fact that nobody in the Dean's Office seemed to be able to make his verbs agree with his subjects. That the Vice President forAcademic Affairs couldn't put his modifiers in the right place, and as far as I can tell can't spell either, and I had for years simply shrugged this off.

But finally I bought a printing press, which every American is supposed to have by the way, and looking at one of these awful memos, this idea came to me. Why not publish these things with cheerful commentary; give the names, ranks, and serial numbers of the perpetrators, along with their salaries, by the way, which The Underground Grammarian frequently does.

Here's a man we're paying $38,000 a year, and his verbs don't agree with his subjects, and basically it subjects him to ridicule, and so it did, and at first, it did mostly that. Little by little it drifted. I mean there's just so much you can say about dangling modifiers and having said that, well the hell with it; if you don't see the point, there's no helping you.

Little by little, it drifted into rather vexing considerations, and they are all considerations really, of the relationship of language to thought. So that what we end up examining finally is not simply the syntax of the utterance, but the thought which must produce that syntax; and then, I'm sorry to say, even further, the morality which must underlay that syntax.

I can give a very convenient example of that because it was terribly striking to me at the time. This was already many years ago, and I was working on a commentary on a piece by some very silly boob, a professor of some kind of education or other somewhere, and he had written the following sentence: "The childhood years may be perceived as formulative."

Now I suppose he meant formative unless he was thinking of babies, you know, sucking on formula; I don?t know, but probably he meant formative and that may even have been a typo, and it's not important, so I'm willing to concede him formative. Now he says then, "The childhood years may be perceived as being formative." Now, one would not think that there is a grammatical problem here, and unless one is paying a certain kind of attention to it, you go right by, but I was for some reason trapped by that modal auxiliary may.

In the first place, what is the man saying, that we are formed in early childhood in some way? Well, that is not exactly a revolutionary notion, you know. That, as a matter of fact, is a little bit too obvious to bother saying. Now that being so, having said such a banal and obvious thing, why does the man take great pains to say it as though he really hadn't said it?

Notice he says?he doesn't say the childhood years are formative--they may, but it isn't even that they may be formative--they "may be perceived as being." He moves this perception away from himself.

It's almost as though he fears that later on someone will discover that they're not, and he can then say, Well, I didn't say they were, I said "they may be perceived as being formative," and that there is in this a kind of, well, there is nothing else to call it--mendacity.

Yes, this is a way of lying, and this is a way of doing another thing that seems to me very important in all considerations of literacy. This is another way of shrugging off responsibility.

When you and I speak to one another, of course, we take some responsibility, but when we write to one another, especially when we write in general to our fellows, we take on a tremendous responsibility, and if I write an article that I expect you to read, in effect I say, Now just a minute, you sit down, don't do anything except listen to me; now I am going to tell you something.

This is audacious; nevertheless, we do it all the time, and we must never forget its audacity because when I do ask that of you, I also now owe you something. I owe you, first of all the best truth that I can tell you; I owe you also the courage out of which to tell it.

I do not really serve you properly when I give you mealy-mouth mendacity, and when I myself try to evade responsibility even for the mildest of generalizations. It seems to me here there was an inescapable moral quality.

Styles: What occurs to me here is that the academic administrator you were talking about, who uses the language poorly, is enforcing on you, through his own rather unskilled use of literacy, some of the very things that literacy gives us--bureaucratic organization, the ability to communicate at a distance, and sometimes the irresponsibility that comes as a result of living in that kind of world that literacy gives us. So literacy is part of the thing that your're combatting.

Richard: If by literacy you mean the ability to make meaningful marks on a piece of paper or a flat surface of some kind, yes, that is true. But I don't really mean that by literacy. However, I think you're in good company. I think even Plato was opposed to teaching students to write, wasn't he?

Richard Mitchell Interview, Part 3

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March 5, 2005

Richard Mitchell Interview, Pt. 1

art 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8


Thanks to Styles for the transcript of his July 6, 1982 interview of the father of The Underground Grammarian. I'm transcribing a hardcopy, so this may take some time. I'll try to do it in fewer than 10 parts.

Richard Mitchell Interview Part 1:
The Purpose of Language

Styles: You express some surprise that the Government would issue a stamp linking writing ability and democracy because you suggest that the propensity of Government is not to insure our liberty, but perhaps to take it away. The suggestion, of course, that literacy is fundamental to democracy, you agree with, but you...well, you had an ironic reaction to the stamp itself. Can you explain that?


Richard: Yes, I did. I'd like to change a word, though, in what you've just said. Freedom I would substitute for Democracy. I'm not sure what we mean by democracy. Obviously, the German Democratic Republic can call itself a democracy, then so can we and so can anybody else.

But I think I do know what I mean by "freedom," and freedom requires the ability essentially to be free in the mind. The ability to think one's own thoughts, and not somebody else's thoughts, and there is no government ever constituted on the face of the earth that does not have an interest in the contrary of that.

Indeed, this was why Jefferson was so hot for what he called, by the way not literacy, but informed discretion, which only begins with literacy. That is, that if the citizens had this informed discretion, then the natural propensities of government could be checked.

I don't think that Jefferson felt he was giving us a good government; he was giving us the least evil government possible, under the circumstances, but these natural propensities, the most important of which is the propensity to seize our minds and our thoughts, can be checked if there is a truly literate public, and therefore?well, I don't think it's the least bit sinister, or even a taunting act on the part of the Federal Government to issue a stamp promoting literacy. I think it's because they don't know what literacy means.

Styles: Well, we as educators certainly have a responsibility to teach the government what we mean, at least, by it. We know what business we're in.


Richard: I wonder if that's true. It's certainly true that we have the responsibility, but as it happens, most of us who call ourselves educators--and by the way I don't?I reject that title--

Styles: Teachers?

Richard: Teachers. Most of us happen to work for the government in one way or another. Most of us are--we don't often think of it--most of us are government agents. There is no other way to put it, and as the current government prospers, and waxes fat, and grows, and is rich, so are we.

So that for all that we know in some compartment of our minds that, in effect, we must be subversives, I think it's probably very hard for us to be that. Literacy?well, look, look at what we have recently done about so-called literacy. I think what sweeps the country now is a rage for basic minimum competence.

Styles: Basic skills?

Richard: Basic skills?the notion here being that literacy is a skill like any other, and that reading--the word reading is very much misunderstood by us--that reading is all one thing, so that if I can read my chronometer, or if I can read a paragraph, or if I can read a stop sign, it's pretty much the same kind of thing.

This arises from the delusion that the purpose of language is communication. So we say, well if our children can read The Times and a chronometer and a paragraph, then that's literacy, but it's not. It is not even close to being literacy, and I think I like very much Jefferson's phrase, thoughtful discretion.


Styles: You raise the issue that communication is a delusion, if we keep that as a focus, and yet communication and community are of the same root. To the extent that we're going to have a community of people who are free, we have to have some from of communication obviously.

Richard: No, I didn't say that communication is a delusion. It is a delusion that the purpose of language is communication.

Styles: What then is the true purpose of language?

Richard: Oh, I think it's a delusion to seek the true purpose of language, too. Let me start though with that notion. If the purpose of language is to communicate, in the first place this is very much like saying that the purpose of the wind is to blow; it is to find some attribute of a thing and because that is, in fact, its attribute, somehow assume that that is its purpose.

Certainly language does communicate as do many other things, but if the purpose of language is to communicate, then suddenly language becomes secondary in importance. What becomes important is that communicated. So that if we sit here imagining the purpose of language is to communicate, then I imagine the following condition.

I imagine that there is something here in one place, and I want to move it to another place. That one place perhaps being my mind and the other place perhaps being your mind, or the minds of the citizens. Now if language is nothing but a bridge from the one to the other, then if there were some other bridge, that would do too. And if I could put my thumb to my nose and waggle my fingers, that would work; or if I could hold up a yellow sign with a blue stripe across it and have the same effect, that would work. Which is to say that the language itself is of no importance. That it is simply a way of communicating.

This is one excuse nowadays in many of our schools for not teaching too much, by the way, in the way of language, the skill in language. Well, if you can get your point across, that is all that counts, but anybody who has seriously read books knows that the business of language is not that.

That is, what takes place right there in the language on the page before our very eyes and mind, that is the business that is going on here, and when you have read David Strauss, for instance, you do not say, "Oh, something has now been communicated unto me," because if you were called upon to say what that was, all you could do would be to recite David Strauss back.

No, something very other than that has taken place there, although many things may have been communicated to you as well. But if we teach ourselves and our students that the purpose is to communicate, then we end up being quite satisfied with the kind of language that is utterly non-metaphorical, utterly without tendency, utterly without those endless levels of meaning that language does have.

Furthermore, we blind ourselves to the fact that a great many things are communicated, even by the most seemingly neutral language, that we are not aware of on either side of the communicating process. I have an anecdote. Would you like an anecdote?


Styles: Sure.

Richard: It happened to me just today. I was writing about something and I wrote saying that there are certain grounds upon which we might object to a certain belief. At least two of them come to mind. One is purely hypothetical and the other is practical. Then I stopped myself and I asked, "Why did I write purely hypothetical?" And examined a rather quite long chain of pros, as a matter of fact, the consequences of having written that, and the roots of having written that.

I wrote it as a cliché» we always say that things are purely hypothetical. Why do we say that? This is to make some important distinction between the hypothetical and practical, but not just the distinction hidden in the words.

I don't say this is purely hypothetical and that is purely practical, you'll notice. This is, in a way, to denigrate the theoretical and to convey the impression that, "Well, we all know the important thing is the practical, and anything theoretical is only theoretical." And indeed the word purely carries flavors of the word only as it carries flavors of the word merely.

So here, you see, in what seems to me nothing but communication--in fact, I have inserted a thought which a) was not mine, b) of which I do not in fact approve, which I cannot in fact commend, and c) which was until I stopped to pay attention to the word, invisible to me.

So that thinking in terms of mere communication, I have in fact done a great deal more than communicate what I thought I was communicating, and I did not intend to do it; I did it as an automatic twitch.


Richard Mitchell Interview, Part 2


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3. How the Mind Works

kay. Now that I've completed the overview in Part 1 and Part 2, let's get into some details and their implications.

You can also jump to Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9

As I've said before, isn't it funny how often we hear about the fact that we have a subconscious mind, and yet we never take it into account in our daily lives? Well, it's time to start.

Because there is a significant minority of people around you who do, and sometimes they do so at your expense and their benefit.

I'll get into more of that as this series of posts continues.

The Reticular Activating System

The reticular activating system (RAS) is a network of cells in the brain associated with wake, sleep, attention, and focus. It physically filters irrelevant sensory input. It's the RAS that makes you forget that you have all those little tickly hairs on your body (until I mentioned it to you. Hey, what's that sound outside?)

The RAS allows you to focus. When you start reading a good book, or a fascinating post like this one, the rest of the world begins to fade away--the television, the traffic on the street, the sounds of rain on the roof, your sweetheart talking on the phone in the other room.

The RAS makes you blind to everything that you regard as unimportant in this moment. It opens your awareness to what you value, and closes your awareness to what you don't value.

Every day you walk through the world oblivious to everything you don't value. (Or to what others may have somehow convinced you is of no value. See how this might work?)

The RAS works like an executive secretary; it screens out the junk, clutter, the nonessential, working as a sophisticated filter, allowing you to focus. That't the good news.

Of course, it also screens out everything it thinks is junk. It's important that you realize that many valuable things get screened out because they are not valued. That's the bad news.

(Hey, suppose we want to prevent people from valuing certain things like, say, the founders of the first liberal democracy in the world, the Constitution, sophisticated language skills, what it means to be a citizen, etc. Maybe we should make sure everyone goes to the same kind of school and learn everything but those things and...but I get ahead of myself.)

The Conscious Mind

Let's do a quick review of what you pretty much already know. Your conscious mind constantly has you perform a basic series of actions as you go through the day. Each time you come upon an experience, you perceive, you associate, you evaluate, and you decide what to do.

I perceive something slithering in the grass and I hear a rattle. I associate that with my experience and memory--a rattlesnake. I evaluate it. This is not good. A rattlesnake can bite and poison me. I decide to run away.

We think that is pretty much all there is to reality. But reality is more like an iceberg. A small percentage of the whole appears above the surface.


The Subconscious Mind

Your subconscious mind is a repository. It stores habits and attitudes, and it stores what it regards as "the Truth."

Your subconscious, especially as it relates to the reticular activating system, constantly strives to co-opt anything you do repeatedly and tries to make it automatic. That's its job.

Habits

When you start driving a car, you are conscious of every turn of the wheel and movement of your feet. You have to be because it's not yet habitual. Your subconscious notes the repetative activity, and soon, you're driving down the road for minutes at a time and you forget that you are driving.

How do you stay on the road? The subconscious takes over and keeps you doing what you have done so many times before. It makes your driving automatic to free your conscious mind to focus on other things.

The same is true with learning how to type. Most typing teachers will tell you that there is a 20-words-per-minute limit to conscious typing. There is a barrier that you cannot consciously pass. When you learn how to type, you have to learn to let go, allow it to become habitual (subconcious). Then you can reach 50, 60, 100 words per minute.

Piano players and other musicians know the same thing. At first, you have to practice, practice, practice. At a certain point, proficiency and speed pick up as you allow the activity to become more automatic, more a part of your subconscious.

Attitudes

On an airplane, the attitude controls determine how the plane turns toward or away from something. The right wing drops and you lean right. The left wing drops and you lean left. In life, we lean toward things we like and away from things we dislike. This behavor reflects our attitudes.

The subconscious begins to co-opt and make automatic our repeated likes and dislikes. Our cultivated attitudes become habitual. They become a part of us, and we soon believe that these attitudes are instinctual, determined, automatic, rather than remember that for the most part they are learned.

"The Truth"

So here is the kicker. Just like habits and attitudes, what you believe to be true also gets stored, whether it is really true or not.

Your subconscious is not interested in what is really true, only in what you believe to be true. Anything you strongly believe to be true gets stored as "the Truth." And it becomes part of your makeup, your personality, as integrated into you as your driving, your typing, your attitudes.

There is a third part of your mind. Let's call it The Censor. One of it's primary jobs is to keep you sane. The way the Censor keeps you sane is by making sure that "Reality" out there matches "the Truth" inside.

Think about that for a minute.

To be continued in 4. How the Mind Works.

*** We are all worms. But I believe that I am a glowworm. Winston Churchill

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March 4, 2005

Shanghai Photoblog

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To Who It May Concern


am not a violent man. But I have had it up to here!

I can't stand it anymore. I want to invite every reader to join me in a conspiracy to commit murder.

It has insinuated itself into our lives. Eating away at our brains. Putting us on the defensive, chipping away at our self-esteem, confusing us into pointless pauses, enslaving us into just trying to get it right.

And to what purpose?

Admit it. You were looking at the title of this post and thinking about it, weren't you?

I speak of whom.

Why, why, why, why, why, why?

Who grew up speaking it without special education? Who comes upon it naturally in daily speech? Who did this to us?

Let's face it. The quadratic equation is rare but particularizes something useful. Hegemony is a rare word but distinguishes something useful. The Pythagorean Comma is rare but occasionally it's useful, for a few specialists.

What use is whom? What real difference has it ever made? Yeah, yeah, it distinguishes the object from the subject in a sentence, but who friggin' cares?

When has there been a real lack of clarity when it's missing in common usage?

Sure, you can construct an example sentence to show a possible ambiguity, but who would say such a thing? By who would it be said?

Let's murder it now, together, and bury it in the backyard, wrapped in lime and dissolved in acid. No more whom. No more pauses in deciding what the proper form of who is. No more pauses each time we come across it, trying to decide if it was used correctly. No more "Oh, by the way, that should be whom."

Let's be assassins. Let's stake this grammatical vampire in its academic black heart.

Die, die, die, die, die, haunted thing that should have decayed centuries ago.


Welcome to my jetlag!

*** I'm standing right behind you, using you as a shield. Ashleigh Brilliant


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Carnival of the Carnivals

kay, just trying to keep all these Instapundit Carnivals straight. Here they are:

And then there is

There. I feel better now.

*** The reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have a common enemy. Sam Levenson

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Haggling for 10 RMB

o we're in Shanghai Monday doing an org assessment and the VP for HR and I finish our interviews before the rest of the team and he says, "Mark, let's go back to the hotel, write up the preliminary report, and maybe we'll have time to shop before we meet the team at 5:30."

So I say, Great! I know how to get us to where he wants to go. His wife told him the previous evening to get her one of these Prada knock-offs, but one in yellow. We'd seen one over the weekend in a backstreet "warehouse" that was hidden from the police because, apparently, there are legitimate knock-offs and illegitimate knock-offs. (Not to be confused, of course, with legitimate and illegitimate knock-ups.)

So we head back to the Renaissance in Pudong, write up the report, and head out to Yu Gardens again. We dodge males and females, most of them seemingly half my size (I'm just over six foot and my boss is as well, and he really stands out because of his curly gray-white hair... all around us is a sea of black hair) and they're surging up to us every five feet crying, "Rolex? You need watch?" and I think, Gee it's like they don't realize I've been asked that same question by 20 different people in the last block. And besides I already got my wife a geniune Franck Muller the previous day nearby, which normally costs $11,000 anywhere else and I got it for 350 RMB, about $43 US ($1 US equals 8.25 RMB).

I get us to the right street stall, but no one's there and I motion to some of the guys standing around, since my Mandarin is, uh, nil, and they point to a guy who happily leads us back to the alleyway behind the storefronts.

There's always a bunch of tiny apartment shanties everywhere, and he takes us past the place we visited over the weekend, and I stop and point to it and say, "Hey! This is it!" and he smiles and nods and motions us to follow him, saying "Same, same."

So we follow him through the narrow walkways into even more shanty-like conditions, with clothes hanging on lines, and people of all sorts milling about. It's all relatively clean compared to other places we'd seen and there's no danger signals going off on my inner radar, so we follow him through an open doorway and into a small 9' by 9' low-ceiling room with curtains on three sides and cheap flourescents washing out the colors.

He locks the door behind us (No police!) and draws back the pale green cotton curtains, revealing all kinds of purses, Prada, Gucci, Coach, Louis Vuittan, and we know they are real leather because he whips out a lighter and waves the open flame under a purse to prove they're not plastic and says, "See? Geniune, rea' reather!" and we smile and nod with him, but he doesn't have the yellow real-leather Prada, just a black one, and that's no good, so we point to it and say, "Yellow, yellow Prada."

And we make ready to leave, and he stops us nodding, "No, no, yellow, okay" and pulls out his cell phone (everyone in Shanghai, no matter their economic condition, seems to have a cell phone) and makes a call, and he talks rapidly, forcefully, finally getting the message across to whomever he needs to get the message across to, and he says, "Okay, okay, wait" and he pulls out several little suitcases of watches to keep us occupied, which we aren't all that interested in, we came for a very specific purse.

And then he pulls out the Mont Blanc pens, excuse me, a Mont Blanc collection of fine writing instruments, but instead of hundreds of dollars, we can get rea' ones for 80 RMB, about 10 bucks US, but that's not good enough for us so we do the haggle and get him down to 70 RMB, and we each get a pen, because they actually seem to write well, and they look and feel good.

And we're still waiting for the yellow Prada, but we figure that we should settle on a price, so we pull out the black Prada and he pulls out his calculator (there must be thousands of these being used in street stalls every day in Shanghai) and he punches in 480 RMB, which is $60, an outrageious amount (I got a nice Coach two days earlier for 160 RMB, down from 350, and I know if I had walked away a few times, I could have saved at least another 20 or 30 RMD, that is $2 to $4 US) and so we get him down finally to $320, because there is a matching wallet inside and a colleague got one just like it for nearly that amount the previous day, and we're just considering haggling for 10 RMB more, when the ceiling creaks.

We look up and our smiling salesman says, "No worry, no worry, it's just my wife" and for the first time we notice that in one part of this low ceiling is a 2-foot square cutout hole and a small ladder. And a small smiling woman comes down the ladder with their son, who's less than 2 years old.

And everything slows down.

I notice that there's a small refrigerator in this little warehouse. Some cosmetics sit on a small shelf above the refrigerator.

There's a mirror on the wall, placed in such a way that by easing over to it, I can look up into it, through the hole in the ceiling and get a reverse image of the corner of a mattress, a tiny dresser and a chair.

I look at my boss. It dawns on both of us that, Oh My God, this tiny little split level 9 by 9 warehouse is a family home.

And they're all smiling, including the boy. Just then all desire goes out of us to haggle over 10 RMB.

The yellow purse arrives, we pay more than we had agreed, and all three of them are very happy having done business with these Americans. He presses his business card into our hands, even though it's completely in Chinese. We're his new friends.

We leave them with their smiles, which we know include a glowing satisfaction at our thinking we're leaving with such incredible bargains...

...and thinking back on their smiles, the smile of that child, I'm sure we did.

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