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Posts Tagged ‘Diane Ackerman’

06 OCTOBER, 2014

What the Future of Robots Reveals About the Human Condition

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“I find it touchingly poetic to think that as our technology grows more advanced, we may grow more human.”

In the most memorable scene from the cinematic adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, Jodi Foster’s character — modeled after real-life astronomer and alien hunter Jill Tarter — beholds the uncontainable wonder of the cosmos, which she has been tasked with conveying to humanity, and gasps: “They should’ve sent a poet!”

To tell humanity its own story is a task no less herculean, and at last we have a poet — Sagan’s favorite poet, no less — to marry science and wonder. Science storyteller and historian Diane Ackerman, of course, isn’t only a poet — though Sagan did send her spectacular scientifically accurate verses for the planets to Timothy Leary in prison. For the past four decades, she has been bridging science and the humanities in extraordinary explorations of everything from the science of the senses to the natural history of love. In The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us (public library), Ackerman traces how we got to where we are — a perpetually forward-leaning species living in a remarkable era full of technological wonders most of which didn’t exist a mere two centuries ago — when “only moments before, in geological time, we were speechless shadows on the savanna.”

With bewitchingly lyrical language, Ackerman paints the backdrop of our explosive evolution and its yin-yang of achievement and annihilation:

Humans have always been hopped-up, restless, busy bodies. During the past 11,700 years, a mere blink of time since the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, we invented the pearls of Agriculture, Writing, and Science. We traveled in all directions, followed the long hands of rivers, crossed snow kingdoms, scaled dizzying clefts and gorges, trekked to remote islands and the poles, plunged to ocean depths haunted by fish lit like luminarias and jellies with golden eyes. Under a worship of stars, we trimmed fires and strung lanterns all across the darkness. We framed Oz-like cities, voyaged off our home planet, and golfed on the moon. We dreamt up a wizardry of industrial and medical marvels. We may not have shuffled the continents, but we’ve erased and redrawn their outlines with cities, agriculture, and climate change. We’ve blocked and rerouted rivers, depositing thick sediments of new land. We’ve leveled forests, scraped and paved the earth. We’ve subdued 75 percent of the land surface — preserving some pockets as “wilderness,” denaturing vast tracts for our businesses and homes, and homogenizing a third of the world’s ice-free land through farming. We’ve lopped off the tops of mountains to dig craters and quarries for mining. It’s as if aliens appeared with megamallets and laser chisels and started resculpting every continent to better suit them. We’ve turned the landscape into another form of architecture; we’ve made the planet our sandbox.

But Ackerman is a techno-utopian at heart. Noting that we’ve altered our relationship with the natural world “radically, irreversibly, but by no means all for the bad,” she adds:

Our relationship with nature is evolving, rapidly but incrementally, and at times so subtly that we don’t perceive the sonic booms, literally or metaphorically. As we’re redefining our perception of the world surrounding us, and the world inside of us, we’re revising our fundamental ideas about exactly what it means to be human, and also what we deem “natural.”

Nowhere does this revolutionary reframing come more alive than in a chapter poetically titled “When Robots Weep, Who Will Comfort Them?” Ackerman’s exploration of the implications of artificial intelligence is at first necessarily discomfiting, then productively perplexing, then assuringly optimistic. She writes:

It’s an Anthropocene magic trick, this extension of our digital selves over the Internet, far enough to reach other people, animals, plants, interplanetary crews, extraterrestrial visitors, the planet’s Google-mapped landscapes, and our habitats and possessions. If we can revive extinct life forms, create analog worlds, and weave new webs of communication — what about new webs of life? Why not synthetic life forms that can sense, feel, remember, and go through Darwinian evolution?

Illustration from 'Alice in Quantumland' by Robert Gilmore. Click image for more.

To probe the furthest fringes of this question, Ackerman visits the pioneering Cornell University roboticist Hod Lipson, whose lab is working on the development of a new self-aware species, Robot sapiens. Ackerman explains the implications, nothing short of existential:

Our own lineage branched off many times from our apelike ancestors, and so will the flowering, subdividing lineage of robots, which perhaps needs its own Linnaean classification system. The first branch in robot evolution could split between AI and AL — artificial intelligence and artificial life. Lipson stands right at that fork in that road, whose path he’s famous for helping to divine and explore in one of the great digital adventures of our age. It’s the ultimate challenge, in terms of engineering, in terms of creation.

If this sounds a little sci-fi, Ackerman points out that the very notion of Robot sapiens is predicated on one of the most undeniable forces Earth has ever known, that of evolution — Lipson’s work, then, is doing little more than “asking a primordial soup of robotic bits and pieces to zing through millions of generations of fluky mutations, goaded by natural selection.” Reflecting on these new creatures, Lipson shares with Ackerman a vision at once utterly mind-bending and utterly sensical:

They will have deep emotions… But they won’t necessarily be human emotions.

The kernel of this capacity, Lipson believes, lies in “the unspoken Holy Grail of a lot of roboticists” — the aspiration to create self-aware consciousness. (A goal undoubtedly quite far away, as we still struggle to understand human consciousness.) He tells Ackerman:

When a machine learns from experience, there are few guarantees about whether or not it will learn what you want… And it might learn something that you didn’t want it to learn, and yet it can’t forget. This is just the beginning.

To demystify the proposition, Ackerman points to our age-long refusal to acknowledge animal consciousness, something on which scientists now uniformly agree, much thanks to the work of Jane Goodall. Ackerman considers the criteria we presently use for conscious beings and parlays those into the question of what makes us human:

[Animals] possess a theory of mind, and can intuit what a rival might do in a given situation and act accordingly. They exhibit deceit, compassion, the ability to see themselves through another’s eyes…

I don’t think they fret and reason endlessly about mental states, as we do. They simply dream a different dream, probably much like the one we used to dream, before we crocheted into our neural circuitry the ability to have ideas about everything. Other animals may know you know something, but they don’t know you know they know. Other mammals may think, but we think about having thoughts. Linnaeus categorized us in the subspecies of Homo sapiens sapiens, adding the extra sapiens because we don’t just know, we know that we know.

This meta-knowledge is what E.F. Schumacher explored in his beautiful 1977 contemplation of the art of adequatio and how we know what we know, and it is also at the crux of what is at stake in the quest for self-aware artificial intelligence. Ackerman writes:

When people talk about robots being conscious and self-aware, they mean a range of knowing.

[...]

Lipson wants his robots to make assumptions and deductions based on past experiences, a skill underlying our much-prized autobiographical memory, and an essential component of learning. Robots will learn through experience not to burn a hand on a hot stove, and to look both ways when crossing the street.

But, like a true humanist, Ackerman wonders whether such faculties will ever penetrate the essential mystery — perhaps a “permanent mystery,” to use John Updike’s term for existence — of the human spirit:

Yet however many senses robots may come to possess—and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have many more than we, including sharper eyesight and the ability to see in the dark — they’ll never be embodied exactly like us, with a thick imperfect sediment of memories, and maybe a handful of diaphanous dreams. Who can say what unconscious obbligato prompts a composer to choose this rhythm or that — an irregular pounding heart, tinnitus in the ears, a lover who speaks a foreign language, fond memories evoked by the crackle of ice in winter, or an all too human twist of fate? There would be no Speak, Memory from Nabokov, or The Gulag Archipelago from Solzhenitsyn, without the sentimental longings of exile. I don’t know if robots will be able to do the sort of elaborate thought experiments that led Einstein to discoveries and Dostoevsky to fiction.

Yet robots may well create art, from who knows what motive, and enjoy it based on their own brand of aesthetics, satire (if they enjoy satire), or humor. We might enjoy it, too, especially if it’s evocative of work by human artists, if it appeals to our senses. Would we judge it differently?

The iCub humanoid robot (Photograph: Sharingame CC-BY-NC-ND)

On a visit to the 2013 Living Machines Conference, Ackerman encounters iCub — a three-foot robot that has “naturally evolved theory of mind,” that developmental milestone human children reach around age three or four when they begin to understand that others have experiences, thoughts, intentions, and desires different from their own. Ackerman considers how this childlike robot attains its knowledge of self and other in relation to the world:

Through countless interactions between body and world it codifies knowledge about both. None of that is new. Nor is being able to distinguish between self and other, and intuit the other’s mental state. Engineers like Lipson have programmed that discernment into robots before. But this was the first time a robot evolved the ability all by itself. iCub is just teething on consciousness, to be sure, but it’s intriguing that the bedrock of empathy, deception, and other traits that we regard as conscious can accidentally emerge during a robot’s self-propelled Darwinian evolution. It happened like this. iCub was created with a double sense of self. If he wanted to lift a cup, his first self told his arm what to do, while predicting the outcome and adjusting his knowledge based on whatever happened. His second—we can call it “interior” — self received exactly the same feedback, but, instead of acting on the instructions, it could only try to predict what would happen in the future. If the real outcome differed from a prediction, the interior self updated its cavernous memory. That gave iCub two versions of itself, an active one and an interior “mental” one. When the researchers exposed iCub’s mental self to another robot’s actions, iCub began intuiting what the other robot might do, based on personal experience. It saw the world through another’s eyes.

There is one implication I find particularly curious — despite all that has been written about the self illusion and how it limits our true human potential, it seems nonetheless a necessary one. Without the ability to distinguish the boundaries of one’s own self against those of others, amid the amorphous jelly of the world, there would be no theory of mind and no sense of self. Consciousness, after all — at least in the empirical sense — requires self-awareness.

Robots, Ackerman argues, can also help us make sense of the world now that our own sensemaking capacity is being drowned out by an information ecosystem of exponentially swelling amounts of data. She recounts that in 1972, when she was making her writing debut with a suite of poems for the planets, Carl Sagan, who was on her doctoral committee at Cornell, gave her access to NASA photographs and reports. It was possible then, Ackerman argues, “for an amateur to learn everything humans knew about the planets.” This is no longer the case — “the Alps of raw data would take more than one lifetime to summit, passing countless PhD dissertations at campsites along the trail.” So there is incredible allure in the notion of intelligent robots that can help us trek across those Alps and make new discoveries.

How extraordinary that we’ve created peripheral brains to discover the truths about nature that we seek. We’re teaching them how to work together calmly as a society, share data at lightning speed, and cooperate so much better than we do, rubbing brains together in the invisible drawing room we sometimes call the “cloud.” Undaunted, despite our physical and mental limitations, we design robots to continue the quest we began long ago: making sense of nature. Some call it Science, but it’s so much larger than one discipline, method, or perspective.

Illustration from 'Alice in Quantumland' by Robert Gilmore. Click image for more.

This, Ackerman argues, is cause for celebration rather than lamentation. Echoing Paola Antonelli’s assertion that technology humanizes objects rather than dehumanizing people, she writes:

I find it touchingly poetic to think that as our technology grows more advanced, we may grow more human. When labor, science, manufacturing, sales, transportation, and powerful new technologies are mainly handled by savvy machines, humans really won’t be able to compete in those sectors of the economy. Instead we may dominate an economy of interpersonal or imaginative services, in which our human skills shine.

She returns to Lipson’s robots and their broader implications:

One of Lipson’s robots knows the difference between self and other, the shape of its physique, and whether it can fit into odd spaces. If it loses a limb, it revises its self-image. It senses, recollects, keeps updating its data, just as we do, so that it can predict future scenarios. That’s a simple form of self-awareness. He’s also created a machine that can picture itself in various situations — very basic thought experiments—and plan what to do next. It’s starting to think about thinking.

[...]

And with this will come emotions, because emotions, at the end of the day, have to do with the ability to project yourself into different situations — fear, various needs — and anticipate the rewards and pain in many future dramas.

And yet given how woefully flawed we humans are at making projections about our own future selves, one can’t help but wonder whether artificial intelligence, however self-correcting it may be, would succumb to the same system bugs as the very minds that created it. Even Ackerman, optimistic though she may be about the humanizing potential of robotics, remains profoundly human in her lament, rooted in our essential and rather fragile sense of the personal I:

A powerful source of existential grief comes from accepting that I won’t live long enough to find out.

But Ackerman’s wistfulness rests into a larger optimism of foresight that peers into the quintessential do-androids-dream-of-electric-sheep question as she considers the unimaginable evolution of Robot sapiens:

Will they grow attached to others, play games, feel empathy, crave mental rest, evolve an aesthetics, value fairness, seek diversion, have fickle palates and restless minds? We humans are so far beyond the Greek myth of Icarus, and its warning about overambition (father-and-son inventors and wax wings suddenly melting in the sun). We’re now strangers in a strange world of our own devising, where becoming a creator, even the Creator, of other species is the ultimate intellectual challenge. Will our future robots also design new species, bionts whose form and mental outlook we can’t yet imagine?

Way back in our own evolution, we came from fish that left the ocean and flopped from one puddle to another. In time they evolved legs, a much better way to get around on land. When Lipson’s team asked a computer to invent something that could get from point A to point B—without programming it how to walk—at first it created robots reminiscent of that fish, with multihinged legs, flopping forward awkwardly.

[...]

It’s a touching goal. Surpassing human limits is so human a quest, maybe the most ancient one of all, from an age when dreams were omens dipped in moonlight, and godlike voices raged inside one’s head. A time of potent magic in the landscape. Mountains attracted rain clouds and hid sacred herbs, malevolent spirits spat earthquakes or drought, tyrants ruled certain trees or brooks, offended waterholes could ankle off in the night, and most animals parleyed with at least one god or demon. What was human agency compared to that?

Illustration from 'The Book of Miracles,' 1552. Click image for more.

To be sure, this question of where robots are headed isn’t a negation of human agency or human potential but, rather, a celebration of it. Reflecting on our “extraordinary powers of invention, subtlety, and know-how,” on “the small unremarkable acts of mercy and heroism parents and lovers perform each day,” Ackerman concludes by reconsidering our human journey in relation to nature, the inescapable backdrop against which — to borrow Carl Sagan’s beautiful language — “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” She ends with an invocation at once gentle and urgent:

We can survive our rude infancy and grow into responsible, caring adults — without losing our innocence, playfulness, or sense of wonder. But first we need to see ourselves from different angles, in many mirrors, as a very young species, both blessed and cursed by our prowess. Instead of ignoring or plundering nature, we need to refine our natural place in it.

Nature is still our mother, but she’s grown older and less independent… As we’re becoming acutely aware of just how vulnerable she truly is, we’re beginning to see her limits as well as her bounty, and we’re trying to grow into the role of loving caregivers…

We are dreamsmiths and wonder-workers. What a marvel we’ve become, a species with planetwide powers and breathtaking gifts. That’s a feat to recognize and celebrate. It should fill us with pride and astonishment. The name also tells us we are acting on a long, long geological scale. I hope that awareness prompts us to think carefully about our history, our future, the fleeting time we spend on Earth, what we may leave in trust to our children (a full pantry, fresh drinking water, clean air), and how we wish to be remembered. Perhaps we also need to think about the beings we wish to become. What sort of world do we wish to live in, and how do we design that human-made sphere? …

We still have time and talent, and we have a great many choices… Our mistakes are legion, but our imagination is immeasurable.

The Human Age is a spectacular read in its entirety, pointing the poetics of science to the heart of such ensnaring open questions as what an imaginary future geologist might deduce about our civilization based on our human-made landscapes, why there might be more to the weather than we realize, and how 3-D printing will reshape the notion of the body.

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10 APRIL, 2014

The Science of Smell: How the Most Direct of Our Senses Works

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Why the 23,040 breaths we take each day are the most powerful yet perplexing route to our emotional memory.

“Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes,” Anna Quindlen advised in her indispensable Short Guide to a Happy Life. Susan Sontag listed “linen” and “the smell of newly mown grass” among her favorite things. “A man may have lived all of his life in the gray,” John Steinbeck wrote in his beautiful meditation on the meaning of life, “and then — the glory — so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose.” Why is it that smell lends itself to such poetic metaphors, sings to us so sweetly, captures us so powerfully?

That’s precisely what science historian Diane Ackerman explores in A Natural History of the Senses (public library), her 1990 prequel to the equally fantastic A Natural History of Love. Ackerman, who also happens to be a spectacular poet and the author of the gorgeous cosmic verses that Carl Sagan mailed to Timothy Leary in prison, paints the backdrop of this perplexing and unique sensory experience:

Our sense of smell can be extraordinarily precise, yet it’s almost impossible to describe how something smells to someone who hasn’t smelled it… We see only where there is light enough, taste only when we put things into our mouths, touch only when we make contact with someone or something, hear only sounds that are loud enough to hear. But we smell always and with every breath. Cover your eyes and you will stop seeing, cover your ears and you will stop hearing, but if you cover your nose and stop smelling, you will die.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from 'The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert.' Click image for more.

In fact, every breath we take in order to live is saturated with an extraordinary amount of olfactory information — a fact largely a matter of scale:

Each day, we breathe about 23,040 times and move around 438 cubic feet of air. It takes us about five seconds to breathe — two seconds to inhale and three seconds to exhale — and, in that time, molecules of odor flood through our systems. Inhaling and exhaling, we smell odors. Smells coat us, swirl around us, enter our bodies, emanate from us. We live in a constant wash of them. Still, when we try to describe a smell, words fail us like the fabrications they are…

The charm of language is that, though it is human-made, it can on rare occasions capture emotions and sensations that aren’t. But the physiological links between the smell and language centers of the brain are pitifully weak. Not so the links between the smell and the memory centers, a route that carries us nimbly across time and distance.

Indeed, that route is a greater shortcut to our cognition and psychoemotional circuitry than any of our other senses can offer. Ackerman outlines the singular qualities of our smell-sensation that set it apart from all other bodily functions:

Smell is the most direct of all our senses. When I hold a violet to my nose and inhale, odor molecules float back into the nasal cavity behind the bridge of the nose, where they are absorbed by the mucosa containing receptor cells bearing microscopic hairs called cilia. Five million of these cells fire impulses to the brain’s olfactory bulb or smell center. Such cells are unique to the nose. If you destroy a neuron in the brain, it’s finished forever; it won’t regrow. If you damage neurons in your eyes or ears, both organs will be irreparably damaged. But the neurons in the nose are replaced about every thirty days and, unlike any other neurons in the body, they stick right out and wave in the air current like anemones on a coral reef.

Illustration by Tomi Ungerer from 'The Cat-Hater's Handbook.' Click image for more.

That’s also what makes perfumes so powerful — if you’ve ever walked into a crowded room and instantly experienced a pang of emotion as you thought you smelled your ex, or your mother, or your third-grade teacher, you’ve had a first-hand testimony to the potency of smell as a trigger of emotional memory. Ackerman explains:

A smell can be overwhelmingly nostalgic because it triggers powerful images and emotions before we have time to edit them… When we give perfume to someone, we give them liquid memory. Kipling was right: “Smells are surer than sights and sounds to make your heart-strings crack.”

What’s perhaps most extraordinary is that scent lodges itself largely in the long-term memory system of the brain. And yet, we remain inept at mapping those links and associative chains when it comes to describing smells and their emotional echoes. To shed light on how perfumery plays into this paradox, Ackerman offers a taxonomy of the basic types of natural smells and how they became synthetically replicated, unleashing an intimate dance of art, science, and commerce:

All smells fall into a few basic categories, almost like primary colors: minty (peppermint), floral (roses), ethereal (pears), musky (musk), resinous (camphor), foul (rotten eggs), and acrid (vinegar). This is why perfume manufacturers have had such success in concocting floral bouquets or just the right threshold of muskiness or fruitiness. Natural substances are no longer required; perfumes can be made on the molecular level in laboratories. One of the first perfumes based on a completely synthetic smell (an aldehyde) was Chanel No. 5, which was created in 1922 and has remained a classic of sensual femininity. It has led to classic comments, too. When Marilyn Monroe was asked by a reporter what she wore to bed, she answered coyly, “Chanel No. 5.” Its top note — the one you smell first — is the aldehyde, then your nose detects the middle note of jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, orris, and ylang-ylang, and finally the base note, which carries the perfume and makes it linger: vetiver, sandalwood, cedar, vanilla, amber, civet, and musk. Base notes are almost always of animal origin, ancient emissaries of smell that transport us across woodlands and savannas.

And so we get to the actual science of smell — what actually makes us have an olfactory experience, and why we often confuse those with taste:

We need only eight molecules of a substance to trigger an impulse in a nerve ending, but forty nerve endings must be aroused before we smell something. Not everything has a smell: only substances volatile enough to spray microscopic particles into the air. Many things we encounter each day — including stone, glass, steel, and ivory — don’t evaporate when they stand at room temperature, so we don’t smell them. If you heat cabbage, it becomes more volatile (some of its particles evaporate into the air) and it suddenly smells stronger. Weightlessness makes astronauts lose taste and smell in space. In the absence of gravity, molecules cannot be volatile, so few of them get into our noses deeply enough to register as odors. This is a problem for nutritionists designing space food. Much of the taste of food depends on its smell; some chemists have gone so far as to claim that wine is simply a tasteless liquid that is deeply fragrant. Drink wine with a head cold, and you’ll taste water, they say. Before something can be tasted, it has to be dissolved in liquid (for example hard candy has to melt in saliva); and before something can be smelled, it has to be airborne. We taste only four flavors: sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. That means that everything else we call “flavor” is really “odor.” And many of the foods we think we can smell we can only taste. Sugar isn’t volatile, so we don’t smell it, even though we taste it intensely. If we have a mouthful of something delicious, which we want to savor and contemplate, we exhale; this drives the air in our mouths across our olfactory receptors, so we can smell it better.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from 'The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert.' Click image for more.

The rest of A Natural History of the Senses is just as fascinating a read, diving deeper into the mysteries and miracles of smell and our other sensory faculties. Complement it with Ackerman’s A Natural History of Love and her impossibly wonderful love letter to the Solar System, The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral.

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08 NOVEMBER, 2013

Famous Authors’ Hand-Drawn Self-Portraits and Reflections on the Divide Between the Private Person and the Writerly Persona

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“Only the crazed and the privileged permit themselves the luxury of disintegration into more than one self.”

“It is to my other self, to Borges, that things happen… I live, I agree to go on living, so that Borges may fashion his literature,” Jorge Luis Borges wrote in his famous essay “Borges and I,” eloquently exploring our shared human tendency to disintegrate into multiple personas as our public and private selves slip in and out of different worlds. In 1996, Daniel Halpern asked 56 of our era’s most celebrated writers to reflect on Borges’s memorable meditation and contribute their own thoughts on the relationship between the person writing and the fictional persona of the writer. The resulting short essays, alongside hand-drawn self-portraits from each author — a recurring theme today — are gathered in Who’s Writing This?: Notations on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits (public library), a priceless addition to this omnibus of famous writers’ timeless wisdom on the craft.

Edward Albee

Cynthia Ozick

Diane Ackerman

Poet Diane Ackerman, whose timelessly beautiful cosmic poems never cease to stir, speaks to our multiple coexisting inner selves and the fluidity of human personality:

Selves will accumulate when one isn’t looking, and they don’t always act wisely or well.

True to her essay’s title, “Diane Ackerman and I,” she playfully turns to the third person to further explore how this notion played out in her own life, while touching on a great many human universalities:

It was only in her middle years that she began to notice how her selves had been forming layer upon layer, translucent like skin; and, like skin, they were evolving a certain identifiable “fingerprint” — a weather system of highs and lows, loops and whirls.

[…]

Older, what she craved was to be ten or twelve selves, each passionately committed to a different field — a dancer, a carpenter, a composer, an astronaut, a miner, etc. Some would be male, some female, and all of their sensations would feed back to one central source. Surely then she would begin to understand the huge spill of life, if she could perceive it from different view points, through simultaneous lives.

[…]

She thinks a lot about the pageant of being human — what it senses, loves, suffers, thrills like — while working silently in a small room, filling blank sheets of paper. It is a solitary mania. But there are times when, all alone, she could be arrested for unlawful assembly.

Mark Helprin

Mark Helprin echoes the same sentiment:

When the Queen of England speaks in the first person plural, it sounds marvelously schizoid, and probably is for her a deep embarrassment. When an American politician has gone around the bend, he begins to refer to himself in the third person. All people feel that they are more than one. Even an Eskimo who returns from the ice to sit in the shadows inside an igloo must sometimes ask himself what the hunt has done to him, must wonder why his tenderness with his children takes so long to flood back after his sinews have been bent and frozen hard in the chase. It happens to everyone and to all of us, and only the crazed and the privileged permit themselves the luxury of disintegration into more than one self.

And yet he has mastered that private integration that keeps his own multiple selves together:

However many of me there are, I have managed to fuse them into one. I cannot tell myself apart any more than the heavily breathing fox hiding under branches or in brush perceives in the mirror of his wide and alert eye a new dainty self or a different sad self or an admirably reflective self.

Margaret Atwood

In an essay titled “Me, She, and It,” Margaret Atwood — a woman of strong opinions about the problems of literature and its how-to’s — pokes at the common, flawed trope of the writerly persona as a separate, superior entity to the writer’s person:

Why do authors wish to pretend they don’t exist? It’s a way of skinning out, of avoiding truth and consequences. They’d like to deny the crime, although their fingerprints are allover the martini glasses, not to mention the hacksaw blade and the victim’s neck. Amnesia, they plead. Epilepsy. Sugar overdose. Demonic possession. How convenient to have an authorial twin, living in your body, looking out through your eyes, pushing pen down on paper or key down on keyboard, while you do what? File your nails?

Noting her own embodiment of this dichotomy, she admonishes:

A projection, a mass hallucination, a neurological disorder — call her what you will, but don’t confuse her with me.

Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles shares a similar sentiment in his essay titled “Bowles and It”:

What is this curious assumption, widely shared … that while writing, a writer can identify himself as one who is writing? The consciousness of oneself as oneself causes a short circuit, and the light goes out.

If I am writing fiction, I am being invented. I cannot retain any awareness of identity. The two states of being are antithetical. The author is not at a steering wheel: “I am driving this car. I command its movements. I can make it go wherever I please.” This assertion of identity is fatal; the writing at that point becomes meaningless.

Frank Bidart

Frank Bidart bleeds into the existential:

We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.

He considers fiction as the mechanism of this perpetuum mobile of self-transformation:

Sweet fiction, in which bravado and despair beckon from a cold panache, in which the protected essential self suffers flashes of its existence to be immortalized by a writing self that is incapable of performing its actions without mixing our essence with what is false.

Paula Fox

In a short essay titled “Path,” Paula Fox rebels against this meta-awareness of the writer’s writing:

I cannot write of writing. To be at work, to write, must exclude thoughts about writing or about myself as a writer. To consider writing, to look at myself as a writer, holds for one sober moment, then plunges me into a tangle of misery that Cesare Pavese describes in his diary: “This terrible feeling that what you do is all wrong, so is what you think, what you are!”

It all suggests to me Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle, which states that you can either know where a thing is or how fast it is moving — but not both simultaneously. The warring self disappears into the self-less concentration of work. Imagination is conjunctive and unifying; the sour, habitual wars of the self are disjunctive and separating.

When I begin a story at my desk, the window to my back, the path is not there. As I start to walk, I make the path.

Ward Just

Exploring his own inner duality, Ward Just indulges a play on his name:

The Just and the unJust inhabiting the same body, so close you can’t pry us apart, but we are not friends. He speaks, I edit. He plays, I work. He is famously convivial, I am a recluse. And at the end of the evening, when I’m exhausted and yearning for bed, knowing there’s an assignment to complete, he stays on, anything to keep me in the closet a little longer. And when the inevitable question comes, he answers it with aplomb, holding his glass —

Don’t mind if I do.

Allan Gurganus

Allan Gurganus, in an essay titled “The Fertile ‘We’ of One Chaste ‘I,'” considers the “inward, unsure, tender, professional empathizer” of the writer’s private self, in such stark contrast with his carefully constructed public persona:

What interests me about my own work and character is not the solid, admirable, good-nurse, self-motivated persona that I simulate toward Frans Hals warmth in scholarly talks, in photographs taken during charity banquets. That guy is about as real as his tweed jacket’s suede elbow patches and about that necessary. It’s Lint Man I’m a slave for. Poor dweeb hasn’t had a date since 1965; and hasn’t regretted that since January 1972.

He, the true writer, is the department store dummy at the very center of the whole establishment, the one left alone on display all night, a price tag stapled to every piece of clothing they’ve yanked onto him, binoculars and frog flippers included. He is the neutral, generic human form, the gray center who must always assume disguises — in order to be seen and, therefore, to feel himself.

And yet it’s “Lint Man” Gurganus relishes:

How lavish and how Godlike is Lint Man’s open-endedness. Lint Man’s specificity.

He ends on a somewhat solemn note:

The chances of achieving literary performance are, to the decimal point, the odds against becoming fully human.

That means one hundred and fifty million to one.

Which means one hundred and fifty million in one.

Ed Koren

Children’s book author and New Yorker cover artist Ed Koren offers his contribution in the medium of his forte:

Francine Prose

Francine Prose, who has taught us how to read like a writer, considers how to write like a writer in a meditation titled “She and I … and Someone Else”:

She never seems happier than when she is writing, when the work takes over, and the book (as she puts it, so unoriginally) seems to write itself. The characters are saying and doing things she hadn’t planned at all. What pleases her is that she isn’t there, she no longer feels herself present, and I…

Someone else is writing, and both she and I have vanished.

John Hawkes

John Hawkes writes:

Some time ago I discovered that I could no longer speak aloud or read aloud from a stage, even for the sake of hearing the effect that my writer’s voice produced on listeners. Now, curiously, the more I merely try to live, the more reclusive I become, the vainer I am. At last I am as vain as the one who instantly voices his silence inside me.

Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller considers the disconnect between the writer-person and the byline-persona:

I know Arthur Miller, but not “Arthur Miller” or Arthur Miller or “Miller.” About twenty-five years ago the Romanian government banned all “Miller” plays as pornographic. Privately I was very pleased, having admired Henry Miller’s work for a long time. Two theaters were in the midst of producing plays of mine and were forced to cancel them. Did this make me — slightly — Henry Miller? Or him — slightly — Arthur Miller?

He adds:

A book, a poem, a play — they start as fantasms but they end up as things, like a box of crackers or an automobile tire.

Edna O'Brien

Edna O’Brien offers a refreshing, poetic take on the old artist-muse relationship:

The other me, who did not mean to drown herself, went under the sea and remained there for a long time. Eventually she surfaced near Japan and people gave her gifts but she had been so long under the sea she did not recognize what they were. She is a sly one. Mostly at night we commune. Night. Harbinger of dream and nightmare and bearer of omens which defy the music of words. In the morning the fear of her going is very real and very alarming. It can make one tremble. Not that she cares. She is the muse. I am the messenger.

John Updike

John Updike, writing a decade before his death — a subject whose relationship with writing he once explored with such poignancy — considers the dissociation between the constructed Writer and the living person a sort of useful psychological buffer:

I created Updike out of the sticks and mud of my Pennsylvania boyhood, so I can scarcely resent it when people, mistaking me for him, stop me on the street and ask me for his autograph. I am always surprised that I resemble him so closely that we can be confused.

[…]

The distance between us is so great that the bad reviews he receives do not touch me, though I treasure his few prizes and mount them on the walls and shelves of my house, where they instantly yellow and tarnish.

[…]

Suppose, some day, he fails to show up? I would attempt to do his work, but no one would be fooled.

Max Apple

Elmore Leonard

Alice Hoffman

Frank Conroy

Henry Roth

Though Who’s Writing This?: Notations on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits is, regrettably, out of print, used copies can — and should — be tracked down for guaranteed enjoyment. Complement it with an entirely different kind of self-portrait.

Thanks, Kaye!

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