Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Aimlessness Reconsidered

Hmmm.... Ok.  Done.  I'm still going to strive for aimlessness.

However, I might expand a little on my decision making process if you want to bear with me, (which you shouldn't, but I warned you.) I started this blog with Tristram Shandy in mind, as I have said before, but I'm not sure I was so specific about what that meant. Tristram Shandy was a highly irreverent book of the 18th century that parodied established popular views and indeed parodied the form of the novel itself. Lawrence Sterne, the author, puts the fly leaf some where in the middle of the book as an example. Also, the preface is buried in one of the early chapters as I remember it. The book was a fictional autobiography and many chapters of some of the strangest tangents imaginable come before the birth of the subject of the autobiography even takes place. Come to think of it, the actual conception doesn't occur for many chapters either. I was enchanted by the book then and always will be by a chapter here and there read every few years, but certainly never the whole book again. I had to digest it in an 18th century novel class in one Godforsaken week. Every week was a new 500 plus page book. Every spare moment was taken up with reading. I saw this student coming out of the bookstore with a stack of thick paperbacks and I shouted at him "18th century novel?" He answered "Worse, The Literature of James Clavell." It wasn't worse, I'm positive. All this is to say and self illustrate that tangential thinking became a way of writing for me, perhaps as a form of amusement, but more because of my boredom with staying on topic.

Particularly, I remember one defining moment in a college writing course that solidified my antiauthoritarian stance and my belief in aimlessness as a virtue. After having taking Creative Writing at AUM, and even auditing the class a second time because it was so fun, and auditing a class was free with a full load of classes. I had done pretty darned well, thank you. My instructor liked me, twice even. Then I switched schools and found myself in a literature class with one of the most classically educated and overly proper instructors I have ever had.  The first thing I had to write was an essay about something important to me in literature ( I think it was James Baldwin) and got a "C" on my essay. How could this possibly be? I included a nice hook at the beginning. I developed themes that I thought were deep and meaningful, and I put much thought into to weaving them all together into an absolute masterpiece, at least in my mind. I asked the teacher why I had gotten a "C" and she said "No outline. Your essay was disorganized." Nothing about my themes or attempts at interpretation were even in her mind.

Outlines to me were things you do after you complete the product. I guess my grade school teachers taught me outlining backwards because I remember providing outlines for things already written, as our practice. When I studied computers, I usually got the program working and then created a flowchart, a sort of outline of the program. Oh I outlined the major structure in my head and sometimes on paper, but details would always change as one progressed and started encountering the inevitable complications not originally envisioned. In my way of thinking flowcharts were documentation for the next guy who might have to figure out your program to make changes after you had gone on to a better job. Instructors would come up with programming assignments they thought were impossible to organize without substantial preliminary flowcharting. I would tediously chip away at the task until I had the program working, and then, make my flowchart to turn in to the teacher.

Anyway, back to this moment of awakening in the writing of literary essays -- having spent boatloads of time on this James Baldwin essay and appreciating the quality ever so much myself, I was unappreciated for my writing skills for the first time in my life and, worse, by a teacher. They had always loved my creativity before. Of course, just being grammatically correct was often important before college; but I usually had that sheep sheared correctly. I also prided myself in my ability to be creative in my writing. I remember in grade school that I would sometimes be given a test that required using vocabulary words in sentences. I would look over all the words. Write them down and weave them together into a story. I would edit and erase and edit some more (having a great fondness for erasers then, which is replaced now by the "undo" option)  and finally have it done in time to copy onto the test paper to turn in just as the slowest were finishing up. So from question 1 to question 20, my teacher would be reading an entire story. It wasn't O'Henry but it was fun to read, I'm sure. Needless to say my test papers would stand out and I would bask in the glory of attention. If I missed the meaning of the vocabulary word by a bit in an example, I'm sure the total extra effort made up for the small error. All was well. I was a great writer, admired as anyone could be in grade school with "Number 2" pencils with short erasers.

When you're young, things seem so dramatic and patterns which aren't there are so much easier to see. I took this "C" harder than any grade imaginable. But, the painful part was that I had no idea how I could write a better essay for this woman with her hair rolled into a bun. I did not connect with her. My next assignment was on Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. This book was a far cry from Tristram Shandy, James Baldwin or anything else I could remember reading. It was simply the most boring thing I had ever read, or started to read. I decided early on that this book and the instructor and the class were not for me. So, I read a summary of the book in the university library where I worked. While I never have finished Madame Bovary I still count it as one I have read because of what followed.

These summaries were in a little known and fairly secretive collection of books called Masterplots which I learned about in the reference department in my first job in a library. I remember being instructed not to suggest Masterplots to students looking for Cliff's Notes. Our job was to encourage reading rather than provide alternatives. I found this instruction conflicted with my other duty to encourage people to use the library by providing materials requested, but I always was such a rebellious kid.

Actually, come to think about it, I believe the University of Montevallo library, where I of course worked while at that college, had not only Masterplots but also the usual sets of literary criticisms which I also used to boldly skip reading Madame Bovary. At any rate, I studied all the main characters and memorized the summaries. It was like studying for a math exam as far as I was concerned. I no longer cared about the book, it's literary value, or my instructor's opinion. It took a surprisingly short time to do the job of creating Diet Madame Bovary and then I started the essay late the night before the essay was due. My first task? Write an outline. I wrote the usual outline (1's and 2's, and a's and b's). I made sure every "a" had a "b" and followed all the rules I knew from grade school about outlining. If I didn't have a "b" topic, I just made it up. If I didn't have an "a" or "b" topic, I made both of them up. I used nonspecific ideas gleaned from the summaries, and tried to use vague words and ideas.

I wrote the essay sentence by sentence, following the exact wording of the sentences in my outline. If I came across some topic I could add another vagary to, I just added it to my outline. Job done in no time. Very little thought and almost no insight went into the paper. I was probably finished in a few hours or so. The next day I turned in my essay only to find out that a pop quiz of multiple choice questions had been added to find out if we had read the book. The teacher must have known Madame Bovary truly needed all the help it could get in the form of persuasion because of it's awesomely boring nature. I thought I was doomed because I had only read at most the first few chapters. Days later, when I got the results, I had an A on the exam and an A on the essay with the note: "shows great improvement." I was stunned and unforgiving of reality. THIS crap mattered and my thoughtful work didn't? My mind was made up about organizing my thoughts before writing, I wasn't going to prechew my gum anymore, unless I was forced to. I was going to enjoy each and every flavor burst and when that gum was stale, move on to the next piece.

And so dear reader, I beseech you to forgive your humble blogging servant of his sloppiness, lack of direction and general playfulness concerning structure. Forgive him as he meanders through economics, politics, and any other subject that fortuitously pops into his mind. Please understand that in reality things aren't actually organized into a hierarchical outline, at least in this poor writer's mind. Life is, to him, more like a fractal of unlimited pathways that repeat once in a while in slightly different form, to greater or lesser degree, going nowhere but somehow defining a whole. Seeing the structure is important but it's much more complicated than this writer can possibly organize with his limited talents and incessantly digressing mind which seems to get worse with age.

To more illustrate the point that my writings may not be worth a groat, I give you a piece of my education, still intact, still begging for someone to pay attention to it, and receiving such loving exposure only from me. How can you, most esteemed and honored reader, blame this disaster of a blog on me? Nay, I ask you to blame it on my education, the piece of which that follows, should adequately prepare any sane mind for my future dissemblance and make amends for my past ramblings, if only you understood the lack of wherewithal I bring to the archery tournament. I humbly bow before you and offer, because of the previous lack of my own, the preface of a better writer:

The Author's Preface 
No, I'll not say a word about it—here it is;—in publishing it—I have appealed to the world—and to the world I leave it;—it must speak for itself.
All I know of the matter is—when I sat down, my intent was to write a good book; and as far as the tenuity of my understanding would hold out—a wise, aye, and a discreet—taking care only, as I went along, to put into it all the wit and the judgment (be it more or less) which the great Author and Bestower of them had thought fit originally to give me—so that, as your worships see—'tis just as God pleases. Now, Agalastes (speaking dispraisingly) sayeth, That there may be some wit in it, for aught he knows—but no judgment at all. And Triptolemus and Phutatorius agreeing thereto, ask, How is it possible there should? for that wit and judgment in this world never go together; inasmuch as they are two operations differing from each other as wide as east from west—So, says Locke—so are farting and hickuping, say I. But in answer to this, Didius the great church lawyer, in his code de fartendi et illustrandi fallaciis, doth maintain and make fully appear, That an illustration is no argument—nor do I maintain the wiping of a looking-glass clean to be a syllogism;—but you all, may it please your worships, see the better for it—so that the main good these things do is only to clarify the understanding, previous to the application of the argument itself, in order to free it from any little motes, or specks of opacular matter, which, if left swimming therein, might hinder a conception and spoil all. Now, my dear anti-Shandeans, and thrice able criticks, and fellow-labourers (for to you I write this Preface)—and to you, most subtle statesmen and discreet doctors (do—pull off your beards) renowned for gravity and wisdom;—Monopolus, my politician—Didius, my counsel; Kysarcius, my friend;—Phutatorius, my guide;—Gastripheres, the preserver of my life; Somnolentius, the balm and repose of it—not forgetting all others, as well sleeping as waking, ecclesiastical as civil, whom for brevity, but out of no resentment to you, I lump all together.—Believe me, right worthy, My most zealous wish and fervent prayer in your behalf, and in my own too, in case the thing is not done already for us—is, that the great gifts and endowments both of wit and judgment, with every thing which usually goes along with them—such as memory, fancy, genius, eloquence, quick parts, and what not, may this precious moment, without stint or measure, let or hindrance, be poured down warm as each of us could bear it—scum and sediment and all (for I would not have a drop lost) into the several receptacles, cells, cellules, domiciles, dormitories, refectories, and spare places of our brains—in such sort, that they might continue to be injected and tunn'd into, according to the true intent and meaning of my wish, until every vessel of them, both great and small, be so replenish'd, saturated, and filled up therewith, that no more, would it save a man's life, could possibly be got either in or out. Bless us!—what noble work we should make!—how should I tickle it off!—and what spirits should I find myself in, to be writing away for such readers!—and you—just heaven!—with what raptures would you sit and read—but oh!—'tis too much—I am sick—I faint away deliciously at the thoughts of it—'tis more than nature can bear!—lay hold of me—I am giddy—I am stone blind—I'm dying—I am gone.—Help! Help! Help!—But hold—I grow something better again, for I am beginning to foresee, when this is over, that as we shall all of us continue to be great wits—we should never agree amongst ourselves, one day to an end:—there would be so much satire and sarcasm—scoffing and flouting, with raillying and reparteeing of it—thrusting and parrying in one corner or another—there would be nothing but mischief among us—Chaste stars! what biting and scratching, and what a racket and a clatter we should make, what with breaking of heads, rapping of knuckles, and hitting of sore places—there would be no such thing as living for us. But then again, as we should all of us be men of great judgment, we should make up matters as fast as ever they went wrong; and though we should abominate each other ten times worse than so many devils or devilesses, we should nevertheless, my dear creatures, be all courtesy and kindness, milk and honey—'twould be a second land of promise—a paradise upon earth, if there was such a thing to be had—so that upon the whole we should have done well enough. All I fret and fume at, and what most distresses my invention at present, is how to bring the point itself to bear; for as your worships well know, that of these heavenly emanations of wit and judgment, which I have so bountifully wished both for your worships and myself—there is but a certain quantum stored up for us all, for the use and behoof of the whole race of mankind; and such small modicums of 'em are only sent forth into this wide world, circulating here and there in one bye corner or another—and in such narrow streams, and at such prodigious intervals from each other, that one would wonder how it holds out, or could be sufficient for the wants and emergencies of so many great estates, and populous empires. Indeed there is one thing to be considered, that in Nova Zembla, North Lapland, and in all those cold and dreary tracks of the globe, which lie more directly under the arctick and antartick circles, where the whole province of a man's concernments lies for near nine months together within the narrow compass of his cave—where the spirits are compressed almost to nothing—and where the passions of a man, with every thing which belongs to them, are as frigid as the zone itself—there the least quantity of judgment imaginable does the business—and of wit—there is a total and an absolute saving—for as not one spark is wanted—so not one spark is given. Angels and ministers of grace defend us! what a dismal thing would it have been to have governed a kingdom, to have fought a battle, or made a treaty, or run a match, or wrote a book, or got a child, or held a provincial chapter there, with so plentiful a lack of wit and judgment about us! For mercy's sake, let us think no more about it, but travel on as fast as we can southwards into Norway—crossing over Swedeland, if you please, through the small triangular province of Angermania to the lake of Bothmia; coasting along it through east and west Bothnia, down to Carelia, and so on, through all those states and provinces which border upon the far side of the Gulf of Finland, and the north-east of the Baltick, up to Petersbourg, and just stepping into Ingria;—then stretching over directly from thence through the north parts of the Russian empire—leaving Siberia a little upon the left hand, till we got into the very heart of Russian and Asiatick Tartary. Now through this long tour which I have led you, you observe the good people are better off by far, than in the polar countries which we have just left:—for if you hold your hand over your eyes, and look very attentively, you may perceive some small glimmerings (as it were) of wit, with a comfortable provision of good plain houshold judgment, which, taking the quality and quantity of it together, they make a very good shift with—and had they more of either the one or the other, it would destroy the proper balance betwixt them, and I am satisfied moreover they would want occasions to put them to use. Now, Sir, if I conduct you home again into this warmer and more luxuriant island, where you perceive the spring-tide of our blood and humours runs high—where we have more ambition, and pride, and envy, and lechery, and other whoreson passions upon our hands to govern and subject to reason—the height of our wit, and the depth of our judgment, you see, are exactly proportioned to the length and breadth of our necessities—and accordingly we have them sent down amongst us in such a flowing kind of decent and creditable plenty, that no one thinks he has any cause to complain. It must however be confessed on this head, that, as our air blows hot and cold—wet and dry, ten times in a day, we have them in no regular and settled way;—so that sometimes for near half a century together, there shall be very little wit or judgment either to be seen or heard of amongst us:—the small channels of them shall seem quite dried up—then all of a sudden the sluices shall break out, and take a fit of running again like fury—you would think they would never stop:—and then it is, that in writing, and fighting, and twenty other gallant things, we drive all the world before us. It is by these observations, and a wary reasoning by analogy in that kind of argumentative process, which Suidas calls dialectick induction—that I draw and set up this position as most true and veritable; That of these two luminaries so much of their irradiations are suffered from time to time to shine down upon us, as he, whose infinite wisdom which dispenses every thing in exact weight and measure, knows will just serve to light us on our way in this night of our obscurity; so that your reverences and worships now find out, nor is it a moment longer in my power to conceal it from you, That the fervent wish in your behalf with which I set out, was no more than the first insinuating How d'ye of a caressing prefacer, stifling his reader, as a lover sometimes does a coy mistress, into silence. For alas! could this effusion of light have been as easily procured, as the exordium wished it—I tremble to think how many thousands for it, of benighted travellers (in the learned sciences at least) must have groped and blundered on in the dark, all the nights of their lives—running their heads against posts, and knocking out their brains without ever getting to their journies end;—some falling with their noses perpendicularly into sinks—others horizontally with their tails into kennels. Here one half of a learned profession tilting full but against the other half of it, and then tumbling and rolling one over the other in the dirt like hogs.—Here the brethren of another profession, who should have run in opposition to each other, flying on the contrary like a flock of wild geese, all in a row the same way.—What confusion!—what mistakes!—fiddlers and painters judging by their eyes and ears—admirable!—trusting to the passions excited—in an air sung, or a story painted to the heart—instead of measuring them by a quadrant. In the fore-ground of this picture, a statesman turning the political wheel, like a brute, the wrong way round—against the stream of corruption—by Heaven!—instead of with it.

In this corner, a son of the divine Esculapius, writing a book against predestination; perhaps worse—feeling his patient's pulse, instead of his apothecary's—a brother of the Faculty in the back-ground upon his knees in tears—drawing the curtains of a mangled victim to beg his forgiveness;—offering a fee—instead of taking one. In that spacious Hall, a coalition of the gown, from all the bars of it, driving a damn'd, dirty, vexatious cause before them, with all their might and main, the wrong way!—kicking it out of the great doors, instead of, in—and with such fury in their looks, and such a degree of inveteracy in their manner of kicking it, as if the laws had been originally made for the peace and preservation of mankind:—perhaps a more enormous mistake committed by them still—a litigated point fairly hung up;—for instance, Whether John o'Nokes his nose could stand in Tom o'Stiles his face, without a trespass, or not—rashly determined by them in five-and-twenty minutes, which, with the cautious pros and cons required in so intricate a proceeding, might have taken up as many months—and if carried on upon a military plan, as your honours know an Action should be, with all the stratagems practicable therein,—such as feints,—forced marches,—surprizes—ambuscades—mask-batteries, and a thousand other strokes of generalship, which consist in catching at all advantages on both sides—might reasonably have lasted them as many years, finding food and raiment all that term for a centumvirate of the profession. As for the Clergy—No—if I say a word against them, I'll be shot.—I have no desire; and besides, if I had—I durst not for my soul touch upon the subject—with such weak nerves and spirits, and in the condition I am in at present, 'twould be as much as my life was worth, to deject and contrist myself with so bad and melancholy an account—and therefore 'tis safer to draw a curtain across, and hasten from it, as fast as I can, to the main and principal point I have undertaken to clear up—and that is, How it comes to pass, that your men of least wit are reported to be men of most judgment.—But mark—I say, reported to be—for it is no more, my dear Sirs, than a report, and which, like twenty others taken up every day upon trust, I maintain to be a vile and a malicious report into the bargain. This by the help of the observation already premised, and I hope already weighed and perpended by your reverences and worships, I shall forthwith make appear. I hate set dissertations—and above all things in the world, 'tis one of the silliest things in one of them, to darken your hypothesis by placing a number of tall, opake words, one before another, in a right line, betwixt your own and your reader's conception—when in all likelihood, if you had looked about, you might have seen something standing, or hanging up, which would have cleared the point at once—'for what hindrance, hurt, or harm doth the laudable desire of knowledge bring to any man, if even from a sot, a pot, a fool, a stool, a winter-mittain, a truckle for a pully, the lid of a goldsmith's crucible, an oil bottle, an old slipper, or a cane chair?'—I am this moment sitting upon one. Will you give me leave to illustrate this affair of wit and judgment, by the two knobs on the top of the back of it?—they are fastened on, you see, with two pegs stuck slightly into two gimlet-holes, and will place what I have to say in so clear a light, as to let you see through the drift and meaning of my whole preface, as plainly as if every point and particle of it was made up of sun-beams. I enter now directly upon the point. —Here stands wit—and there stands judgment, close beside it, just like the two knobs I'm speaking of, upon the back of this self-same chair on which I am sitting. —You see, they are the highest and most ornamental parts of its frame—as wit and judgment are of ours—and like them too, indubitably both made and fitted to go together, in order, as we say in all such cases of duplicated embellishments—to answer one another. Now for the sake of an experiment, and for the clearer illustrating this matter—let us for a moment take off one of these two curious ornaments (I care not which) from the point or pinnacle of the chair it now stands on—nay, don't laugh at it,—but did you ever see, in the whole course of your lives, such a ridiculous business as this has made of it?—Why, 'tis as miserable a sight as a sow with one ear; and there is just as much sense and symmetry in the one as in the other:—do—pray, get off your seats only to take a view of it,—Now would any man who valued his character a straw, have turned a piece of work out of his hand in such a condition?—nay, lay your hands upon your hearts, and answer this plain question, Whether this one single knob, which now stands here like a blockhead by itself, can serve any purpose upon earth, but to put one in mind of the want of the other?—and let me farther ask, in case the chair was your own, if you would not in your consciences think, rather than be as it is, that it would be ten times better without any knob at all? Now these two knobs—or top ornaments of the mind of man, which crown the whole entablature—being, as I said, wit and judgment, which of all others, as I have proved it, are the most needful—the most priz'd—the most calamitous to be without, and consequently the hardest to come at—for all these reasons put together, there is not a mortal among us, so destitute of a love of good fame or feeding—or so ignorant of what will do him good therein—who does not wish and stedfastly resolve in his own mind, to be, or to be thought at least, master of the one or the other, and indeed of both of them, if the thing seems any way feasible, or likely to be brought to pass. Now your graver gentry having little or no kind of chance in aiming at the one—unless they laid hold of the other,—pray what do you think would become of them?—Why, Sirs, in spite of all their gravities, they must e'en have been contented to have gone with their insides naked—this was not to be borne, but by an effort of philosophy not to be supposed in the case we are upon—so that no one could well have been angry with them, had they been satisfied with what little they could have snatched up and secreted under their cloaks and great perriwigs, had they not raised a hue and cry at the same time against the lawful owners. I need not tell your worships, that this was done with so much cunning and artifice—that the great Locke, who was seldom outwitted by false sounds—was nevertheless bubbled here. The cry, it seems, was so deep and solemn a one, and what with the help of great wigs, grave faces, and other implements of deceit, was rendered so general a one against the poor wits in this matter, that the philosopher himself was deceived by it—it was his glory to free the world from the lumber of a thousand vulgar errors;—but this was not of the number; so that instead of sitting down coolly, as such a philosopher should have done, to have examined the matter of fact before he philosophised upon it—on the contrary he took the fact for granted, and so joined in with the cry, and halloo'd it as boisterously as the rest. This has been made the Magna Charta of stupidity ever since—but your reverences plainly see, it has been obtained in such a manner, that the title to it is not worth a groat:—which by-the-bye is one of the many and vile impositions which gravity and grave folks have to answer for hereafter. As for great wigs, upon which I may be thought to have spoken my mind too freely—I beg leave to qualify whatever has been unguardedly said to their dispraise or prejudice, by one general declaration—That I have no abhorrence whatever, nor do I detest and abjure either great wigs or long beards, any farther than when I see they are bespoke and let grow on purpose to carry on this self-same imposture—for any purpose—peace be with them!—> mark only—I write not for them.   
- Lawrence Sterne Tristram Shandy

I once again implore you to an understanding that should you come across a long entry in this blog that seems at first to be a mess of engineering, any structure that  the reader might initially extract and expect to carry forward throughout the entry (or the blog as a whole) is not by design nor is it the blogger's original intent. The blog is a truly an intentional mess caused mostly from the past educational experiences of the blogger that seemed to reward structure at the peril of thought thus rendering meandering as the next most promising course of action. However, I do submit to you that life is the same and in the educational establishment's attempts to unarrange my meandering understanding of the world, they have unwittingly brought me closer to the very fractal nature of things they wished me to avoid, and thus by accidental encouragement they perfectly educated me. Knowing as I do that you have not read this entire entry because if it's length, I still oddly know you will find it comforting that it is unlikely that any writer could ever reach the standard of this entry twice (especially with the inclusion of a lengthy dose of the great Lawrence Sterne as part of it's content) and so future entries by me will by degrees, necessarily, logically, and in all probability be shorter and less self illustrative.