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04 APRIL, 2012

The Origin and Cultural Evolution of Silence

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“Sound imposes a narrative on you, and it’s always someone else’s narrative.”

A recent New York Times Magazine piece on the extinction of silence prompted me to revisit George Prochnik’s excellent In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise. As a lover of marginalia, I went straight for my notes on the book, which included this highlighted passage on the origin and cultural appropriation of silence:

The roots of our English term ‘silence’ sink down through the language in multiple directions. Among the word’s antecedents is the Gothic verb anasilan, a word that denotes the wind dying down, and the Latin desinere, a word meaning ‘stop.’ Both of these etymologies suggest the way that silence is bound up with the idea of interrupted action. The pursuit of silence, likewise, is dissimilar from most other pursuits in that it generally begins with a surrender of the chase, the abandonment of efforts to impose our will and vision on the world. Not only is it about standing still; with rare exceptions, the pursuit of silence seems initially to involve a step backward from the tussle of life… [I]t’s as though, as a culture, we’ve learned to ‘mind the gaps’ so well that they’ve all but disappeared. We live in an age of incessancy, under the banner of the already heard and forgotten.

But rather than exploring silence solely as subtraction, Prochnik captures its additive potential with a beautiful anecdote:

A painter friend of mine once told me that he thought of sound as an usher for the here and now. When he was a small child, Adam suffered an illness that left him profoundly deaf for several months. His memories of that time are vivid and not, he insists, at all negative. Indeed, they opened a world in which the images he saw could be woven together with much greater freedom and originality than he’d ever known. The experience was powerful enough that it helped steer him toward his lifelong immersion in the visual arts. ‘Sound imposes a narrative on you,’ he said, ‘and it’s always someone else’s narrative. My experience of silence was like being awake inside a dream I could direct.’

This idea — the notion of finding creative expression in negative space — resonates with many artists, literally or metaphorically. Rodin famously claimed that his sculpting process was all about removing the stone that wasn’t part of the sculpture, and Louis Armstrong maintained that the important notes were the ones he didn’t play.

But no one captures the profound and paradoxical nature of silence better than silent Buddhist retreat leader Gene Lushtak. Prochnik recounts a story Lushtak told him about Ajahn Chah, the most prominent leader of 20th-century Buddhism:

A young monk came to live in the monastery where Ajahn Chah was practicing. The people who lived in the town outside the monastery were holding a series of festivals in which they sang and danced all night long. When the monks would rise at three thirty in the morning to begin their meditation, the parties from the night before would still be going strong. At last, one morning the young monk cried out to Ajahn Chah, ‘Venerable One, the noise is interrupting my practice — I can’t meditate with all this noise!; ‘The noise isn’t bothering you, ‘ Ajahn responded. ‘You are bothering the noise.’ As Lushtak put it to me, ‘Silence is not a function of what we think of as silence. It’s when my reaction is quiet. What’s silent is my protest against the way things are.’

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03 APRIL, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Great Story

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“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

The year of reading more and writing better is well underway with writing advice the likes of David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and various invaluable insight from other great writers. Now comes Kurt Vonnegutanarchist, Second Life dweller, imaginary interviewer of the dead, sad soul — with eight tips on how to write a good short story, narrated by the author himself.

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Pair with famous writers’ collected advice on the craft.

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03 APRIL, 2012

The Philosophy of Alice in Wonderland

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Cultivating the capacity to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

When Lewis Carroll penned Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 and Through The Looking-Glass in 1871, he probably didn’t envision his work would reverberate across time to become a cultural icon. It has germinated inspired homages like Salvador Dalí’s little-known illustrations and Tim Burton’s adaptation, it was formative reading for computing pioneer Alan Turing, and it endures as one of the most beloved children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups. The latter, in fact, is the subject of Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser, part of the relentlessly delightful and illuminating Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series, which has previously given us such gems as Arrested Development and Philosophy: They’ve Made a Huge Mistake. The anthology of essays asks seventeen contemporary thinkers to examine the Lewis Carroll classic through the lens of philosophy, exploring subjects as diverse as drugs, dreams, logic, gender, perception, escapism, and what the Red Queen can teach us about nuclear strategy.

My favorite essay, entitled “Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast,” comes from the chapter on logic. In it, George A. Dunn and Brian McDonald write:

When it comes to the curious conditions of Wonderland, Alice’s efforts to make sense of the nonsensical pay off with dividends. But that’s because the nonsense is only provisional, only on the surface, beneath which a diligent investigator like Alice is able to discern perfectly intelligible, albeit unexpected, rules of cause and effect.

[...]

Once Alice has learned what these rules are, she can count on them to operate as dependably as any of the laws of nature that obtain in our world. They only seem nonsensical to us because our experience of our world aboveground and on this side of the looking glass has burdened us with a slew of preconceptions about what can and cannot be accomplished by ingesting the caps of gilled fungi.

[…]

It is to Alice’s credit that she doesn’t hesitate for a moment to discard her preconceptions when she comes across situations that patently refute them. In doing so, she displays an admirable readiness to encounter reality on its own terms, a receptive cast of mind that many philosophers would include among the most important “intellectual virtues” or character traits that assist in the discovery of truth.

(For a parallel meditation on the importance of being able to step away from assumption, cultivate doubt, and find pleasure in mystery, see yesterday’s related exploration of the necessity for ignorance in science.)

The remaining essays in Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser offer insights on everything from social contracts to post-feminism to logical fallacies, spanning schools of thought as varied as Aristotle, Socrates, Hobbes, Wittgenstein, Derrida, and a wealth in between.

Ultimately, as the Duchess keenly observed, “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”

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