Edmund Hillary’s interest in beekeeping later led him to commission Michael Ayrton to cast a golden sculpture in the form of a honeycomb—a reference to Daedalus’ invention of the lost-wax process. This was placed in Hillary’s New Zealand garden, where his bees took it over as a hive and ‘filled it with honey and their young.’
Anonymous asked: what caused your recent lincoln fascination? how do you feel about his probable racism? how do you reconcile the ethical black eyes of otherwise great human souls? which books about Lincoln are you reading? do you recommend any of them?
There’s nothing probable about Lincoln and racism. For nearly all of his life he believed that black people were morally and intellectually inferior to white people. For much of his time as president he advocated forcibly removing every black person in America to some tropical colony in Central America or Africa. This had to be done, he thought, because black people had a temperament unique to their race and that this temperament was inherently unsuited to the kind of culture white people had made for themselves in the US. The best you can say for Lincoln’s racism is that it was inherited. A collection of assumptions that were never tested because 19th Century American society was tuned to prohibit Lincoln’s ever meeting a black person on terms of equality.
On July 30th, 1863 Lincoln did eventually meet a black person he had to take seriously, in the form of Frederick Douglass. Whatever Lincoln’s inner feelings about black people may have been before this meeting—feelings, as distinct from actions, because nobody has ever been able to uncover an instance of bigotry in Lincoln’s behavior—after the meeting they must have been revolutionized:
- The colonization scheme was dropped the moment a delegation of black americans told him they didn’t want to go back to Africa.
- Lincoln repeatedly defeated the racism of Washington police—as they tried to keep Douglass out of the White House during parties—by spotting Douglass in the crowd and calling him over.
- On August 19th, 1864, Lincoln asked Douglass to come to the White House for a meeting about black soldiers in the Union army. During their discussion Lincoln’s aide John Nicolay came in twice to say that the Governor of Connecticut was waiting outside. Lincoln told Nicolay, ‘tell Governor Buckingham to wait, for I want to have a long talk with my friend Frederick Douglass.’ Despite Douglass’ famous pride and self-assurance, he begged Lincoln to dismiss him, and see the Governor instead. Lincoln said, ‘No, I would like to talk to you now. The Governor can wait.’ Something unprecedented was happening in Lincoln’s mind, not only that he kept a powerful Republican governor waiting so he could talk to a black man but also to tell that governor that he was being kept waiting so that the President could talk to a black man.
- (Douglass was nothing if not a devastating judge of character, and many of his descriptions of the great abolitionists relate men who persist in treating him like a servant or a child. In talking to Lincoln however, he said that ‘in all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race. He was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color’)
Lincoln’s abandonment of what we would today call racism gets to the heart of why he continues to fascinate. Lincoln actually possessed an ability that the rest of us only flatter ourselves to claim: the capacity to change into a better person when one realizes that one has been wrong. The thing that gets mythologized as ‘Lincoln’s flawlessness’ is actually his profound grasp of his own flaws, and his ability to tear them out by the root once he recognized them. You can count on one hand the number of people who could do that, and remain that, even as they made it to the top of their society’s political heap. After all, Socrates preferred begging to whatever it takes to overcome distaste for ambition. Self-forgiveness, or something.
But Lincoln is more than interesting. There is something very nearly mystical about him. And like all genuine mysteries, words can only be piled around it to a certain height before they peel away from its sides and topple back down on you.
Lincoln had an amazing grasp—tho’ ‘grasp’ is exactly the wrong word to use in this context—of the nothingness out of which all proficiency and genius emerge, and into which everything genuinely brave has to march. His moral genius is an example of this. When he decided that racist assumptions about black people could not be sustained in the face of his respect for Douglass, Lincoln was demonstrating an interior bravery that is difficult for us to comprehend. Nowadays the difference between being racist and being good is all too obvious. The moral field has lines painted on it and there is no shortage of shrill referees to point out errors. If being good is a function of bravery, not being racist in the present day is about as tepid a moral accomplishment as you can achieve. But imagine taking the first step out of wrong-headedness and into justice… The only thing I can think to compare it to is Einstein realizing that not only does Classical Physics have a ceiling but that if you’re brave enough to drill through it, the nothingness beyond puts wonder to shame. The kind of bravery it takes to be a moral pioneer is something other than courage. It’s closer to being at home in the unknown and at peace with a certain kind of interior nothingness.
Lincoln is frequently heckled for being passive. His contemporaries called him a bumbling feet-dragger. Historians snipe him as indecisive.
But in reality, Lincoln is right and his critics are wrong.
Lincoln knew that the course of events is random and unknowable. And so he wasted no time trying to be an historian of the present: trying to identify the cause and logic of an unfolding event so as to be its master. And then to act in a way that can be explicitly defended. This is the plodding rationality that historians commend as decisive. (Because only the ploddingly rational can suffer the kind of consensus that historians deem truth.) Rather, Lincoln was wise. And being wise, he submerged himself in problems to the point of losing himself:
Edwin Stanton repeatedly snubbed and insulted Lincoln while both were lawyers retained for a patent case in the 1850’s, and despite this being their only personal interaction before Stanton joined the cabinet, in 1862 Lincoln entrusted him with the War Department. This is not just a forgiving nature. This is Lincoln entering into problems of the Civil War so deeply as to perceive a fundamental truth about winning it. And this was that logistical genius would be every bit as necessary as generalship if the North’s manufacturing advantage was to be made into a weapon. Materiel advantage was useless if the bureaucracy that directed its movement was inefficient. Lincoln recognized Stanton as the hard-driving detail-obsessive needed to direct just such a bureaucracy. This is a perfect example of a type of nothingness that utterly defines Lincoln: cold selflessness.
The more you discover about the guy, the more you wish that historians would just shut up, and restrict their analyses to Taoist commentaries on episodes from his life,
Bk I, XV
Of old he who was well versed in the way
Was minutely subtle, mysteriously comprehending,
And too profound to be known.
It is because he cannot be known
That he can only be given a makeshift description:
Tentative, as if fording a river in winter,
Hesitant as if in fear of his neighbors;
Formal like a guest;
Falling apart like thawing ice;
Thick like the uncarved block;
Vacant like the valley;
Murky like muddy water.
Who can be muddy and yet, settling, slowly become limpid?
Who can be at rest and yet, stirring, slowly come to life?
He who holds fast to this way
Desires not to be full.
It is because he is not full
That he can be worn and yet newly made.
Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin
Multiple biography of Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, William Henry Seward, Salmon Chase, Edward Bates plus a little about Edwin Stanton. Idolizing of Lincoln. Somewhat bitchy towards Mary. Fair to the good Seward. Fair to the pathetic Chase. Ehh to the boring Bates. Very incisive on the heartbreakingly repressed, fragile and cracklingly overbearing Stanton.
Lincoln, David Herbert Donald
Nerdy and weakwilled writer who attempts self-absolution by passing repeated judgement (‘Passive Abe!’) on Lincoln. Unsurprisingly, this single criticism is repeated so often that it becomes clear that there’s some transference going on. Very factual, masculine and timid both of historical insight and the sublime insight that can come from involving yrself with yr subject by bonds of sympathy.
Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu (Li Er?), D. C. Lau trans.
Literal translation from professional sinologist. The Tao Te Ching is extant in several manuscript traditions. Lau’s original translation is based on the the most ancient and traditional text. That translation was later revised in light of the Mawangdui archaeological finds of 1973. Frequently these latter finds are completely at odds with the traditional version of the book, and Lau is sometimes at pains to reconcile them with his previous work.
Lao Tzu: Te-Tao Ching, Lao Tsu (Li Er?), Robert Hendricks trans.
An entirely fresh translation using the recently discovered texts from Mawangdui without reference to other manuscript traditions. The most important innovation is the reversal of the order of the two books with Te Ching preceding Tao Ching.
The Lincoln Anthology, Harold Holzer ed.
Wide-ranging collection of extracts from writings about Lincoln. Much of the fun comes from how exhaustive and clever the editor has been (Leo Tolstoy, Karl Marx, Victor Hugo, Mario Cuomo…)
Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, Don Fehrenbacher ed.
the only president to rival Herman Melville
Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, Don Fehrenbacher ed.
Lincoln in Photographs: An Album of Every Known Pose, Charles Hamilton, Lloyd Ostendorf eds.
Infinitely better than any biography for how much of Lincoln’s presence you get from having every known photograph of him in your hands.
Anonymous asked: what do you think of the possibility of your writings here and on twitter being quoted, alluded to and even plagiarized?
This is really a question about pride of ownership.
Pride is one of several ways we give ourselves definition in order to see ourselves more clearly against the background of the world. In effect, prideful people draw their seeming accomplishments around them like a grand suit of clothes. In reality it’s more like a shawl, because the worry at the heart of pride causes chills. Prideful people (who, today, are mainly the falsely modest) always make me think of delicate old women, drawing an inadequate shawl around their shoulders as they hunch against the wind. The critical point is that pride is an obscene waste of energy. Which you spend on yourself because you think you deserve it. But in reality there is no you, and this is just an attempt to hide the ineradicable void at the heart of any self.
We all have a nothingness inside of us that is completely immune to introspection. This nothingness is why you frequently feel like existence is a transcendentally stupid joke. Why every belief can never be held as deeply as you feel it should. Why your understanding of yourself always seems to hit bedrock, even though you know there’s an ocean of magma beneath it. This nothingness is the blue out of which all ideas come to us. And pride of ownership is the selfish—ludicrously selfish—attempt to claim credit in the face of this, on behalf of a fictitious identity.
I would very much like to abandon the agonizingly human way of producing things for something more insect-like. Even if I say I don’t have pride of ownership and couldn’t care less if someone steals what I do, this statement was still made possible by a certain amount of self-murder. And so the indifference to someone stealing your productions becomes studied, and the result of discipline. But no termite queen has to suppress her self image in order to make what she makes. She just broods for a while and then the things emerge. At an incredible rate.
Once you decline to fear the vacuity that gives rise to your productions, you tend to stop hiding it behind bad wallpaper. And consequently start seeing people who would use what you’ve made to paper over their own emptiness as more deserving your humble sympathy than your prideful contempt.
that time, a month before his death, when lincoln stopped the presidential train so he could capture a box turtle basking in a trackside pond
perhaps remembering the turtle he caught to keep his eleven year old sister sarah company, as she struggled to fill their mother’s shoes, after nancy hanks died of milk sickness in 1818
certainly recalling the time he brawled with other children, after he found them flipping a tortoise onto its back and arranging hot coals across its stomach, in a futile attempt to force the animal to crawl out of its shell
In October 1908, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World sent one of its Russian correspondents to see Leo Tolstoy at his home, Yasnaya Polyana. The correspondent was to commission Tolstoy to write an article about Abraham Lincoln, which would be published on Lincon’s centennial the following February. Citing his health—he would be dead in a little over two years—Tolstoy declined the World’s offer. Instead, he told this story,
If one would know the greatness of Lincoln one should listen to the stories which are told about him in other parts of the world. I have been in wild places, where one hears the name of America uttered with such mystery as if it were some heaven or hell. I have heard various tribes of barbarians discussing the New World, but I heard this only in connection with the name of Lincoln. Lincoln as the wonderful hero of America is known by the most primitive nations of Asia. This may be illustrated through the following incident: “Once while travelling in the Caucasus I happened to be the guest of a Caucasian chief of the Circassians, who, living far away from civilized life in the mountains, had but a fragmentary and childish comprehension of the world and its history. The fingers of civilization had never reached him nor his tribe, and all life beyond his native valleys was a dark mystery. Being a Muslim he was naturally opposed to all ideas of progress and education.
I was received with the usual Oriental hospitality and after our meal was asked by my host to tell him something of my life. Yielding to his request I began to tell him of my profession, of the development of our industries and inventions and of the schools. He listened to everything with indifference, but when I began to tell about the great statesmen and the great generals of the world he seemed at once to become very much interested.
‘Wait a moment,’ he interrupted, after I had talked a few minutes. ‘I want all my neighbors and my sons to listen to you. I will call them immediately.’
He soon returned with a score of wild looking riders and asked me politely to continue. It was indeed a solemn moment when those sons of the wilderness sat around me on the floor and gazed at me as if hungering for knowledge. I spoke at first of our Czars and of their victories; then I spoke of the foreign rulers and of some of the greatest military leaders. My talk seemed to impress them deeply. The story of Napoleon was so interesting to them that I had to tell them every detail, as, for instance, how his hands looked, how tall he was, who made his guns and pistols and the color of his horse. It was very difficult to satisfy them and to meet their point of view, but I did my best. When I declared that I had finished my talk, my host, a gray- bearded, tall rider, rose, lifted his hand and said very gravely:
‘But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world. We want to know something about him. He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock and as sweet as the fragrance of roses. The angels appeared to his mother and predicted that the son whom she would conceive would become the greatest the stars had ever seen. He was so great that he even forgave the crimes of his greatest enemies and shook brotherly hands with those who had plotted against his life. His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man.’
‘Tell us, please, and we will present you with the best horse of our stock,’ shouted the others.
I looked at them and saw their faces all aglow, while their eyes were burning. I saw that those rude barbarians were really interested in a man whose name and deeds had already become a legend. I told them of Lincoln and his wisdom, of his home life and youth. They asked me ten questions to one which I was able to answer. They wanted to know all about his habits, his influence upon the people and his physical strength. But they were very astonished to hear that Lincoln made a sorry figure on a horse and that he lived such a simple life.
‘Tell us why he was killed,’ one of them said.
I had to tell everything. After all my knowledge of Lincoln was exhausted they seemed to be satisfied. I can hardly forget the great enthusiasm which they expressed in their wild thanks and desire to get a picture of the great American hero. I said that I probably could secure one from my friend in the nearest town, and this seemed to give them great pleasure.
The next morning when I left the chief a wonderful Arabian horse was brought me as a present for my marvelous story, and our farewell was very impressive.
One of the riders agreed to accompany me to the town and get the promised picture, which I was now bound to secure at any price. I was successful in getting a large photograph from my friend, and I handed it to the man with my greetings to his associates. It was interesting to witness the gravity of his face and the trembling of his hands when he received my present. He gazed for several minutes silently, like one in a reverent prayer; his eyes filled with tears. He was deeply touched and I asked him why he became so sad. After pondering my question for a few moments he replied:
‘I am sad because I feel sorry that he had to die by the hand of a villain. Don’t you find, judging from his picture, that his eyes are full of tears and that his lips are sad with a secret sorrow?’
kenbaumann asked: This is an alley-oop, but: why silence?
silence is where feelings are safe from every dogcatcher of an artist
the vast majority of meanings
that can be made out of one’s feelings
stand in the same relationship
to one another
as glue does to horses
(out of the swift came forth paste)
we drill hole after hole into silence
and call it a great success
when we can get something on the other side to drain
(poets must tramp for days with callused feet,
and the sluggish fish of the imagination
flounders softly in the slush of the heart.
And while, with twittering rhymes, they boil a broth
of loves and nightingales,
the tongueless street merely writhes
for lack of something to shout or say)
silence is where we come from
& it’s pureandsimple vanity
to confuse it with speechlessness
no accident that you gestate with a throat full of brine
Anonymous asked: don’t you realize that you’re a fly buzzing in the sunlight, just below a window knee-high to any real thought? everything you write has the quality of reheated food. and is greedily eaten up by people who don’t know it for the slop it is. you are the stupid person’s idea of a smart person and one day the line of credit you’ve given yourself will dry up. and then, probably for the first time, you’ll finally have something true to say. namely, silence.
Self-consciousness is a strange disease.
Think about your body. Right now—inside of you—there are trillions of chemical reactions happening, in almost complete darkness. Each of them happens in perfect lockstep, the products of one becoming the feedstock of another. Accumulation of one substance triggers a sequence that consumes it. The absence of something else initiates its manufacture. All this has been happening in you for every second that you’ve been alive and the fact that you’re still alive means that it has all happened more or less perfectly. What does originality mean in that context? It means novelty, which means deviation, which means you’re sick.
Being aware of your own existence seems to require a kind of originality. We have to deal with the fact that we know we exist, and something about that process demands that we make ourselves different from everybody else. This need to be individual feels very natural, but seen next to the absolute conformity of every other means by which our life stays alive, it becomes just another disease. We all have to nurse an injured and defective thing right at the core of us. Your individuality is really just an orphan physical process, whose product piles up and up for want of a complementary mechanism that consumes it. The you that I address when I say ‘You’ is a useless surplus of attention. Unnecessarily unique and—so—necessarily alone.
This solitude is what lets you live with yourself. The isolation of being an individual prevents pain. This is because you aren’t unique. You’re lost in a sea of unnecessary duplicates. And any contact with them is painful. The disease that You are has made you so tender that the lightest touch and slightest warmth is painful. The only bearable situation is a chilly seclusion, where your difference will never melt and reveal the disease that compels it.
But now you’ve seen me and we’re the same and so you’re trying to smash the mirror.
Anonymous asked: Should I have sex with as many people as I can before I "settle down"?
This makes me think about mining.
In Australia, opal mining happens in a fairly primitive way. The opals are formed when silicate rocks are subjected to high-temperature water as the water snakes its way through deep-underground faults. The opals are then found stretched over a wide area, as nodes in a spidery network of rock faults. This means they have to be mined with a scattershot method.
What usually happens is that a prospector hooks an enormous auger to the back of a truck and drives it out to the middle of nowhere. He anchors the truck with hydraulic lifts and drills the spiral bit of the auger into the Earth. He sifts the hill of dirt and broken rocks that the augur forces up out of the shaft it bores. And he either finds opals or he doesn’t. This type of mining has turned vast areas of opal-bearing land into swiss cheese. Full of vertical graves ninety feet deep and just wide enough to ensure you go all the way down. It has become a landscape where it’s suicide to walk around at night.
Rock salt is mined in a very different way. Geologic salt is usually laid down when an ancient sea dries up. And the salt flat it leaves behind is first buried, then folded into a corrugated sheet as it is compressed and distorted by the weight of rock above it. This tends to produce huge volumes of nearly pure salt. These volumes can be equivalent to a cube of salt, a half-mile on each side, just buried in the Earth.
Formations like these tend to be mined in a way that turns them into architecture. That is, the salt tends to be so extensive and so deeply buried that the only way of excavating it is to make a kind of subterranean building whose only structural material is rock salt. Salt pillars, salt arches, salt hallways and salt galleries. The miners getting what they want from the formation—by necessity—creates something else: a vast and secret building, hidden underground and given definition by what has been drilled out of it.
So you can be out there drilling dry well after dry well, flagrant in your destruction of an entire landscape. All in search of a fourth rate gemstone.
Or you can be otherwise. And realize that beneath even the most featureless Kansan field, a secret city can be excavated. Vast, unified and private. Far too majestic ever to be confused with a grave.
Anonymous asked: I want you to be happy?
I can remember the time, when I used to sleep quietly
without workings in my thoughts,
whole nights together,
it is other ways with me
a tree nearly always grow such that
the diameters of all its branches at a particular height
equal that of the trunk at
its thickest point
I am the selfish person’s idea of a thoughtful person
The happiest of all lives is a busy solitude
only those who hope to transform
human beings end up burning them
I haven’t yet
reached the day when
I will not need another
to hold my hand in
For a long time I wasn’t afraid of being unhappy because I didn’t believe that it was different from necessity—
the fat ribs of peace
Must by the
Hungry happy now be fed upon
the refusal of praise is only the
wish to be praised twice
Feb. 3 1904
How life & the world—the past & the future —are looking—to me? As they have been looking to me the last 7 years: as being NON-EXISTENT.
That is, that there is nothing. That there is no God and no universe; that there is only empty space, and in it a lost and homeless and wandering and companionless and indestructible Thought. And I am that thought. And God, and the Universe, and Time, and Life, and Death, and Joy and Sorrow and Pain only a grotesque and brutal dream, evolved from the frantic imagination of that insane Thought.
let’s make it to Vicenza when everything falls
apart and live—you and I—in
the Teatro Olimpico
The real comfort of anonymity is not having to know yourself.
Hi, I’m Claude Glass
all the knowledge
I have wrung from the darkness
I was the swash of blood
I was the glint of recognition
I was the best of me
I was the muffled sigh
I was the coward’s face
I was the drunken cry
I was the rhetoric of love
I paint the star I sawed from the yellow pine—
And plant the sign
In soil that does not yet refuse
Its usual Jews.
I live in warshington dc for
four an a half years
and I’d jus be as soon in hell
with my back broke
as live thar
boiling a ruby in an art gallery
fair but not generous
we learn that it is not for man to follow the trail of truth
too far, since by doing so he entirely loses
the directing compass of his mind: for
arrived at the Pole, to whose barrenness only it points,
the needle indifferently respects
all points of the horizon,
That moment was like that other hole you punch in the can of Hawaiian Punch so that the liquid can come out of the first hole
slightly closer to the heart of creation than is usual,
\But still not close enough.
I think that’s dead on. It makes me think about two branches of how things tend to go. They extend in opposite directions. One makes me think of comic books, and the other of photography.
Everyone knows Action Comics No. 1. Or rather, they know it because of the seven figure prices that good copies of it command. This fact has inspired several generations of collectors to preserve their comics until the day when ‘they’re worth something.’ It doesn’t take a degree in economics to see the problem with this. Action Comics No. 1 is expensive because it was once valueless, and so very few copies of it have survived. If comic books are treasured nowadays, they will never be scarce and so there will be no market for them in the future. This fact turns all those plastic sleeves into transparent coffins, where the value of a comic book rots away even as its body is perfectly preserved. This is an example of how an unintended consequence can reach back to strangle the entire enterprise. To nobody’s profit except the manufacturers of little plastic sleeves.
There’s another way that unintended consequences can frustrate our intentions. And in such a way as to make the death of our intentions into the birth of something much more interesting. The invention of photography is a good example.
Around 1800, there was an intense desire to make descriptions of the world that approached objective truth. Isaac Newton and Pierre-Simon Laplace had shown how every motion in the universe was ‘really’ an expression of simple mathematical relationships. The industrial revolution had shown how the optimized motion of a machine could drastically increase production, slash labor costs and excrete the difference as titanic sums of money. These mathematical and mechanical ways of treating our experience would hybridize to become the scaffolding of the world which we presently inhabit.
Enter Nicéphore Niépce, Henry Fox Talbot and Johann Erdmann Hummel.
Niépce is usually credited with being the first person to make a permanent record of an object, solely by projecting the light it reflected onto a sensitive surface. Talbot did the same thing, ten years later and in England. Their contributions to photography are well-known. What is less well-known is how their photographic experiments emerged from an inability to draw. Niépce had a hand-tremor that made him incapable of drawing a straight line and Talbot was simply untalented. Both men initially saw the permanent photographic process as a means of producing mechanically what they couldn’t create artistically: realistic and objective records of the world they lived in. Niépce and Talbot couldn’t draw to save their lives and so had to invent chemical photography.
At precisely the same moment, 1831, a German artist named Johann Erdmann Hummel was inventing photography from the other end. His subject was an enormous granite bowl, commissioned by the Kaiser and installed in Berlin’s Lustgarten. Hummel would paint two pictures of this bowl looking through a variety of lenses to flatten its perspective and enhance its detail. These paintings depict the bowl with such incredible realism as to be far and away the most photographic images for twenty years after the invention of chemical photography. In the sense that Hummel created ‘realer’ images of his subject than anything Niépce or Talbot could produce, it isn’t an exaggeration to call him the better photographer. The fact that photography would come to be understood only as the chemical production of images from reflected light shouldn’t get in the way of seeing the much more important point: Hummel invented photography too. And in a form that satisfied the age’s desire for an objective record far more successfully than any other process available at the time.
The reason I bring this up isn’t to monkey with who gets credit for inventing photography, it’s to explain the why of its emergence. Photography wasn’t an accident and it wasn’t created by tinkerers. It was the result of longrunning project to see the world in an intensely rational way.
But reasons only satisfy reason, and people like Niépce, Talbot and Hummel destroyed realistic art with them. Photography’s ability to perfectly reproduce any object that would reflect light ended up making realistic painting first obsolete, then tedious and finally anesthetizing. This last quality would undermine the conception of our world that gave rise to photography in the first place.
What’s the point of dedicating your life to the exquisite observation of the world so you can later record it in paint when there’s a machine that does it for you? Very few inventions have been as devastating to the human faculty they made obsolete as was photography’s detonation of realistic art. For something equivalent you have to go back to whatever written language must have done to memorization. Or spoken language to smell. All this becomes painfully ironic when you remember that the fuse was lit by three men who thought they were advancing realism in art.
By bringing reason to bear on a problem that doesn’t properly concern it, these men erected the same empty scaffold that goes up every time rationalism exceeds its authority. Photography certainly does produce realistic images of the world but its facility at doing that eventually empties those images of meaning. Cheapening not only photographs, but everything that tries to be realistic. This is because—after photography—realistic works of art seemed not to resemble their subjects, but only photographs of them. (If you don’t believe me, remember that the World Trade Center towers seemed like nothing so much as scenes from an action movie as they collapsed. And that actually happened…) And all we’re left with is an unpleasantly rigid way of seeing the world. But that’s what life is like in the empty scaffold that science x industry is as skilled at erecting as it is inept at filling.
The point here is that photography killed what it tried to perfect. Killed it just as dead as greed has killed the future market for comic books. But whereas the unintended consequences of greed tend to sterilize, photography’s destruction of realism made art almost uncontrollably fertile. Greed is inherently small-minded. It has to operate inside the dense scaffolding of economics and so frequently strangles itself as it tries to expand. The rational scaffolding that photography represents spread contagiously and nearly consumed art in the 19th Century. But not entirely. And in an organic, human domain like art, anything less than complete eradication ends up only pruning.
Clearing the field for a realization.
Photography’s perfection of realistic art—barren as it was—forced a long-overdue recognition: reality is not the same as realism. Moreover, that a surplus of realism doesn’t sharpen our awareness of reality, but anesthetizes it instead.
Enter the spate of famous artists whose work demonstrates this point. Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Duchamp, Rothko, Dan Flavin.
the works of art themselves have in turn been consumed by precisely the same cycle of greed as Action Comics No. 1. And on an industrial scale. The expansion of the science x industry scaffold produces a lot of money. Which has been used to capture art, and once again embed it in a scaffolding foreign to its nature. The only difference is that artists—unlike Marvel—can decide that they no longer want to play. They can decline to find their place in the scaffold. Cease to create the ever more expensive anesthetics the wealthy need to absolve themselves of guilt. Cease to manufacture the kind of culture that makes life in the scaffold bearable. In favor of one that prefers ashes to expansion. And dirt on its ass to vertiginous heights.
Anonymous asked: would you like people to pay attention to you?
The trick is to become like a mirror.
There’s a really good reason we say ‘have a look in the mirror’ instead of ‘have a look at the mirror.’ Mirrors are almost too obvious examples of things that have no existence independent of us. What they are is nearly always what is in them—which is to say, us.
Mirrors are what let you see the parts of yourself unavailable to direct inspection. Your face, the back of your head, your eyes. There’s something nice about how strange it is that we need sheets of glass—that are nothing in themselves—in order to see the rest of our self.
So it’s fine to want people to pay attention to you, but only as long as the you you’re showing them is so elusive that all they end up seeing is themselves. More clearly, and from perspectives that are unavailable to them without your help.
Anonymous asked: I feel like I’ve worked well paid, no-effort entry level office jobs for so long I’ve forgotten how to work hard. If I even knew to start with. My 20’s are ending and I’m trying to push myself into some kind of field that I can picture myself making a career in, but the picture is always the same slacker piece of shit going nowhere - just in a different field. What happens to people like me
When you were a kid you had a kind of inebriation for work, which everyone else called play.
But that evaporates sooner or later. Sooner or later you find yourself getting bored a lot.
You’ll be doing something that you know is good for you, or even something you want to do, and all of a sudden you’ll be yawning through clenched teeth. The floor of your mouth strains painfully and your teeth chatter as your jaws struggle to open.
This is what it feels like to have your energy evaporate. Suddenly to find yourself awake in name only. Just blunt consciousness, and resentful of having even that much. Cousin of sleep, 2nd cousin of death.
This is what it feels like to have possibility narrow for you. When the child was a child it didn’t know it was a child. And so could work at anything. You might not be an adult, but you’re certainly no longer a child. As your awareness opens out, the possibilities of play shrink. The more sophisticated your interactions with the world become, the less worthwhile doing anything for its own sake begins to seem. Until play ceases to be the point of being awake and becomes instead the anesthetic that makes awareness bearable.
Cast around and find the thing that makes this true for you:
Do something that makes you feel stupid:
- Don’t eat anything for four days and then break the fast with bite of something you hate. I promise it will taste different.
- Drink a pot of coffee and watch a Kurosawa movie you’ve never seen with the subtitles and sound both turned off. See if you can get the point from just the camerawork.
- Tell people you have a corneal abrasion as an excuse to wear an eyepatch for a week, and see how you’ve taken stereoscopy for granted.
- Build a pseudoscope.
- Or none of these.
The point is that you’re beginning to see just how much of an unnecessary duplicate your life could become. One tooth in an enormous comb of utterly parallel lives, each being lived in the same niche, wearing the same track in the same tax bracket. Crumbling toward the same irrelevance.
But you already know what happens to people like you. Kids who have this problem have parents who are this problem.
I like it as a symbol. A cigarette is a little thing you can hold between your fingers that represents an essential fact of being alive.
On the one hand you want to be able to make yourself feel a certain way, and so you smoke to do that. For example, you feel time moving past you and it’s like trying to drink the full flow of a garden hose. Cigarettes are like buoys you throw out into time. Little red lights that bob in its expanse. If they don’t quite control time, at least they spread something regular over its surface. In the same way the grid on a map lets you know the ‘where’ of something, which is nearly as good as owning it.
But on the other hand, the cigarettes control us. The fact that we use cigarettes to force time into a shape is something that can’t be reconciled with the fact that cigarettes use us to get smoked.
That’s a good symbol for life.
For how the top-down control we want to have over our lives meets, mingles with, and becomes indistinguishable from a bottom-up control in which we have no say at all. Orders descend from the head and orders rise from the body. The two meet and blame becomes impossible to assign.
That’s all of History right there. Was everything just great men giving orders, exerting control and forcing their will on the world? Or was it all the weather?
Neither and both. You’re a thicket of mind and flesh, just like the world.
Or at least that’s what I think of when I look at a cigarette.
Well right, but isn’t insanity only interesting to people who think it transcends rationality?
Think about how white people have treated it in the past. If you heard things and lived before ~300 AD then the gods favored you with prophecy. And if you were lucky, people stuck you in a temple and paid to hear what you had to say. The situation was reversed once it became clear that insanity was the one true God taking a special interest in your punishment. You had demons in you and if you were lucky, people stuck you in a prison and paid to make sure you stayed there. Either way, you were in a relationship with the supernatural and so weren’t allowed to be in society.
Society cares about predictability and cycle. The Nile flooding, the crops getting sown, the spring military season, the corn coming in, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, the Christmas rush. In a word, accountancy. Society thinks of itself as a thing that only needs common sense and the cooperation of the weather. Give me that, it says, and I promise things won’t fall apart. Obviously, the world won’t play that game for long, and the insane tend to be seen as living symbols of that fact. And so they have to go.
Some people are bored by accountancy and the fat peace that society can provide through it. These are the people who find madness interesting. Not because madness is interesting, but because the people afflicted by it are pushed out of society. And so seem to transcend all that boring rationality. Society defines the insane by what they are excluded from and then defines the way they are interesting to people who are bored by society.
The sad part is that insanity is neither a lack of rationality nor the transcendence of it. If anything, diseases like schizophrenia are almost compulsively rational.
It gets pointless very quickly to try and diagnose long dead people with mental disorders. There is a very close dance between someone’s circumstance and the way their insanity presents. And so when our objective categories of mental illness are applied to the past, those categories are quickly outed as what they are, totally defined by when we live. That said, around 1800 a new kind of paranoia began to appear. This was the belief that machines were controlling or trying to harm otherwise blameless victims.
The most famous early example was a man called James Tilly Matthews. He became convinced that an international group of spies were controlling his body with magnetic fields emitted by an enormous machine he called an Air Loom. The device became the center of an elaborate network of political control by which English foreign policy was directed. Matthews believed his own persecution by the operators of the Air Loom was retaliation for attempting to broker a peace deal between England and the Revolutionary French government.
The important thing about Matthews and what we would call his paranoid schizophrenia is how much sense it makes. Not sense as in ‘a depiction of reality to which a majority of people subscribe’ but sense as in sheer cause-and-effect rationality. The picture Matthews used to explain himself to himself is populated by entirely rational things. Spies do their work for a definite political purpose: advantage. International relations are nearly the most calculating thing a country can do. Magnetic fields are a scientific explanation for the ability to affect objects without touching them. To say nothing of the loom itself, a machine that was—by this point in the Industrial Revolution—being programmed to weave intricate patterns by encoding needle movements on a series of punch-cards. Whatever was going on in Tilly’s mind, it was incredibly preoccupied with finding rational, material explanations for how he felt. Far more preoccupied with reasoned explanations for how he felt than most of us ever are about our own feelings.
This feels key to me. Our instinct with insanity is to see the people affected by it as otherworldly; even traitorous, in that they look like humans but decline to swear allegiance to the reality we take for granted. The point is that there’s nothing alien about insanity. There is no such thing as an alien feeling, only familiar feelings whose intensity incapacitates.
Your society has given you a set of explanatory tools with which you make sense of your feelings. If what you feel can be more or less gripped by those tools, welcome home. If not, if you can’t come to grips with your feelings, you’re either going to kill yourself or develop an explanation you can live with. The strangeness of the explanation is the degree to which we’ll call you insane. And the threat your explanation poses to our explanation is how quickly we’ll get rid of you.
(The reason the Salem witch trials are so important is that they were an exploded view of this process. Instead of happening in one person’s head, a whole society was confronted by things it had no way of comprehending. Public sexuality, Indian paranoia, ergotism, small town cruelty. Rationality was convened in the form of William Stoughton’s court. And the legal proceedings generated an explanation they could live with: Satan was trying to destroy a tiny religious colony by personally visiting its women and telling them how to pinch people without touching them. And so the court killed twenty people. We think of the witch trials as a quaint error for a very good reason: if a whole society can go insane, how would it know who was really crazy? That’s one of those explanations that threatens our explanation…)
In the end, it hardly matters whether society or the insane have the particulars of reality right. For two really good reasons:
- We tend to forget—deliberately forget—that people who are mentally ill are just like us, only moreso.
- Nobody is keeping score.