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07 NOVEMBER, 2012

Henry Miller on Art, War, and the Future of Humanity

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“It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.”

In the heat of World War II, Henry Miller (1891-1980) — voracious reader, masterful letter-writer, champion of combinatorial creativity, one disciplined writer — was living in Beverly Glen, California, and wrestling with the soul-stirring questions that war inevitably brings to the surface. It was then he penned “Of Art and the Future,” a wide-ranging essay on war, art, technology, the role of women in society, and mankind’s future, eventually published in Sunday After the War (public library) in 1944. In 1959, the it was included in The Henry Miller Reader — also featuring Miller’s wonderful “The Wisdom of the Heart” — where he contextualizes it with a caveat: “The war was still on, my royalties from Europe were cut off, and I was in the doldrums.” Still, the essay offers a timeless and immeasurably timely lens on the triumphs and tyrannies of the human spirit.

Miller begins by considering the continuum of time:

To most men the past is never yesterday, or five minutes ago, but distant, misty epochs some of which are glorious and others abominable, Each one reconstructs the past according to his temperament and experience. We read history to corroborate our own views, not to learn what scholars think to be true. About the future there is as little agreement as bout the past, I’ve noticed. We stand in relation to the past very much like the cow in the meadow — endlessly chewing the cud. It is not something finished and done with, as we sometimes fondly imagine, but something alive, constantly changing, and perpetually with us. But the future too is with us perpetually, and alive and constantly changing. The difference between the two, a thoroughly fictive one, incidentally, is that the future we create whereas the past can only be recreated. As for that constantly vanishing point called the present, that fulcrum which melts simultaneously into past and future, only those who deal with the eternal know and live in it, acknowledging it to be all.

He articulates the era’s familiar fear of technology:

The cultural era of Europe, and that includes America, is finished. The next era belongs to the technician; the day of the mind machine is dawning. God pity us!

In a prescient contemplation, all the more true and urgent today, Miller considers the state of war and peace:

In the future we shall have only ‘world wars’ — that much is already clear.

With total wars a new element creeps into the picture. From now on, every one is involved, without exception. What Napoleon began with the sword, and Balzac boasted he would finish with the pen, is actually going to be carried through by the collaboration of the whole wide world, including the primitive races whom we study and exploit shamelessly and ruthlessly. As war spread wider and wider so will peace sink deeper and deeper into the hearts of men. If we must fight more whole-heartedly we shall also be obliged to live more whole-heartedly.

He then goes on to echo his then-lover Anaïs Nin‘s poignant meditation on individuals and mass movements:

This war will bring about the realization that the nations of the earth are made up of individuals, not masses. The common man will be the new factor in the world-wide collective mania which will sweep the earth.

Miller considers the role and responsibility of inventors and “geniuses” in moving society forward — something astrophysicists Neil deGrasse Tyson recently discussed on Colbert — with equal parts optimism for human nature and caution of power-warped human intentions:

The problem of power, what to do with it, how to use it, who shall wield it or not wield it, will assume proportions heretofore unthinkable. We are moving into the realm of incalculables and imponderables in our everyday life just as for the last few generations we have been accustoming ourselves to this realm through the play of thought. Everything is coming to fruition, and the harvest will be brilliant and terrifying. To those who look upon such predictions as fantastic I have merely to point out, ask them to imagine, what would happen should we ever unlock the secret patents now hidden in the vaults of our unscrupulous exploiters. Once the present crazy system of exploitation crumbles, and it is crumbling hourly, the powers of the imagination, heretofore stifled and fettered, will run riot. The face of the earth can be changed utterly overnight once we have the courage to concretize the dreams of our inventive geniuses. Never was there such a plentitude of inventors as in this age of destruction. And there is one thing to bear in mind about the man of genius — even the inventor — usually he is on the side of humanity, not the devil. It has been the crowning shame of this age to have exploited the man of genius for sinister ends. But such a procedure always acts as a boomerang: ultimately the man of genius always has his revenge.

One could easily see him as a champion of today’s 99%:

What is now at the bottom will come to the top, and vice versa. The world has literally been standing on its head for thousands of years.

Two years before Races of Mankind, Miller makes an eloquent case for abolishing racist sensibilities:

We have talked breathlessly about equality and democracy without ever facing the reality of it. We shall have to take these despised and neglected ones to our bosom, melt into them, absorb their anguish and misery. We cannot have a real brotherhood so long as we cherish the illusion of racial superiority, so long as we fear the touch of yellow, brown, black or red skins.

He then presents a vision for the future of the city, strikingly aligned with today’s notion of global citizenship:

The city, which was the birth-place of civilization, such as we know it to be, will exist no more. There will be nuclei of course, but they will be mobile and fluid. The peoples of the earth will no longer be shut off from one another within states but will flow freely over the surface of the earth and intermingle. There will be no fixed constellations of human aggregates.

Miller’s addition to history’s famous definitions of art mirrors Joan Didion’s conception of writing as power. He writes:

At the root of the art instinct is this desire for power — vicarious power. The artist is situated hierarchically between the hero and the saint.

[…]

To put it quite simply, art is only a stepping stone to reality; it is the vestibule in which we undergo the rites of initiation. Man’s task is to make of himself a work of art. The creations which man makes manifest have no validity in themselves; they serve to awaken, that is all.

Despite his own profound passion for books, Miller envisions a future where the bound page no longer is:

In a few hundred years or less books will be a thing of the past. There was a time when poets communicated with the world without the medium of print; the time will come when they will communicate silently, not as poets merely, but as seers. What we have overlooked, in our frenzy to invent more dazzling ways and means of communication, is to communicate.

Nearly two decades before Marshall McLuhan’s seminal treatise on how new communication media shape our desires and cultural norms, Miller makes a similar observation:

No, the advance will not come through the use of subtler mechanical devices, nor will it come through the spread of education. The advance will come in the form of a breakthrough. New forms of communication will be established. New forms presuppose new desires. The great desire of the world today is to break the bounds which lock us in. It is not yet a conscious desire. Men do not yet realize what they are fighting for. This is the beginning of a long fight, a fight from within outwards.

In contemplating the era’s political landscape — an observation at once timeless and timelier than ever, with the urgency of this season’s election — he laments:

Often, when I listen to the radio, to a speech by one of our politicians, to a sermon by one of our religious maniacs, to a discourse by one of our eminent scholars, to an appeal by one of our men of good will, to the propaganda dined into us night and day by the advertising fiends, I wonder what the men of the coming century would think were they to listen in for just one evening.

Ultimately, however, Miller’s characteristic faith in the human spirit remains unabated:

Myself I cannot see the persistence of the artist type. I see no need for the individual man of genius in such an order. I see no need for martyrs. I see no need for vicarious atonement. I see no need for the fierce preservation of beauty on the part of a few. Beauty and Truth do not need defenders, nor even expounders. No one will ever have a lien on Beauty and Truth; they are creations in which all participate. They need only to be apprehended; they exist externally. Certainly, when we think of the conflicts and schisms which occur in the realm of art, we know that they do not proceed out of love of Beauty or Truth. Ego worship is the one and only cause of dissension, in art as in other realms. The artist is never defending art, but simply his own petty conception of art. Art is as deep and high and wide as the universe. There is nothing but art, if you look at it properly. It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.

Sunday After the War is a treasure in its entirety, made all the more precious by the fact that most of the essays in it are not available online.

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06 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Nature of the Fun: David Foster Wallace on Why Writers Write

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“Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable.”

On the heels of the highly anticipated new David Foster Wallace biography comes Both Flesh and Not: Essays (public library) — a collection spanning twenty years of Wallace’s nonfiction writing on subjects as wide-ranging as math, Borges, democracy, the U.S. Open, and the entire spectrum of human experience in between. Among the anthology’s finest is an essay titled “The Nature of the Fun” — a meditation on why writers write, encrusted in Wallace’s signature blend of self-conscious despondency, even more self-conscious optimism, and overwhelming self-awareness. It was originally published in 1998 in Fiction Writer and also included in the wonderful 1998 anthology Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction.

After offering an extended and rather gory metaphor for the writer’s creative output and a Zen parable about unpredictability, he gets to the meat of things:

In the beginning, when you first start out trying to write fiction, the whole endeavor’s about fun. You don’t expect anybody else to read it. You’re writing almost wholly to get yourself off. To enable your own fantasies and deviant logics and to escape or transform parts of yourself you don’t like. And it works – and it’s terrific fun. Then, if you have good luck and people seem to like what you do, and you actually start to get paid for it, and get to see your stuff professionally typeset and bound and blurbed and reviewed and even (once) being read on the a.m. subway by a pretty girl you don’t even know it seems to make it even more fun. For a while. Then things start to get complicated and confusing, not to mention scary. Now you feel like you’re writing for other people, or at least you hope so. You’re no longer writing just to get yourself off, which — since any kind of masturbation is lonely and hollow — is probably good. But what replaces the onanistic motive? You’ve found you very much enjoy having your writing liked by people, and you find you’re extremely keen to have people like the new stuff you’re doing. The motive of pure personal starts to get supplanted by the motive of being liked, of having pretty people you don’t know like you and admire you and think you’re a good writer. Onanism gives way to attempted seduction, as a motive. Now, attempted seduction is hard work, and its fun is offset by a terrible fear of rejection. Whatever “ego” means, your ego has now gotten into the game. Or maybe “vanity” is a better word. Because you notice that a good deal of your writing has now become basically showing off, trying to get people to think you’re good. This is understandable. You have a great deal of yourself on the line, writing — your vanity is at stake. You discover a tricky thing about fiction writing; a certain amount of vanity is necessary to be able to do it all, but any vanity above that certain amount is lethal.

Here, Wallace echoes Vonnegut, who famously advised, “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.” Indeed, this lusting after prestige and approval is a familiar detractor of creative purpose in any endeavor. Wallace goes on:

At some point you find that 90% of the stuff you’re writing is motivated and informed by an overwhelming need to be liked. This results in shitty fiction. And the shitty work must get fed to the wastebasket, less because of any sort of artistic integrity than simply because shitty work will cause you to be disliked. At this point in the evolution of writerly fun, the very thing that’s always motivated you to write is now also what’s motivating you to feed your writing to the wastebasket. This is a paradox and a kind of double-bind, and it can keep you stuck inside yourself for months or even years, during which period you wail and gnash and rue your bad luck and wonder bitterly where all the fun of the thing could have gone.

He adds to literary history’s most famous insights on the relationship between truth and fiction:

The smart thing to say, I think, is that the way out of this bind is to work your way somehow back to your original motivation — fun. And, if you can find your way back to fun, you will find that the hideously unfortunate double-bind of the late vain period turns out really to have been good luck for you. Because the fun you work back to has been transfigured by the extreme unpleasantness of vanity and fear, an unpleasantness you’re now so anxious to avoid that the fun you rediscover is a way fuller and more large-hearted kind of fun. It has something to do with Work as Play. Or with the discovery that disciplined fun is more than impulsive or hedonistic fun. Or with figuring out that not all paradoxes have to be paralyzing. Under fun’s new administration, writing fiction becomes a way to go deep inside yourself and illuminate precisely the stuff you don’t want to see or let anyone else see, and this stuff usually turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers and readers everywhere share and respond to, feel. Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable. This process is complicated and confusing and scary, and also hard work, but it turns out to be the best fun there is.

He concludes on a Bradbury-like note:

The fact that you can now sustain the fun of writing only by confronting the very same unfun parts of yourself you’d first used writing to avoid or disguise is another paradox, but this one isn’t any kind of bind at all. What it is is a gift, a kind of miracle, and compared to it the rewards of strangers’ affection is as dust, lint.

Both Flesh and Not is excellent in its entirety and just as quietly, unflinchingly soul-stirring as “The Nature of the Fun.”

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06 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Half-Life of Facts: Dissecting the Predictable Patterns of How Knowledge Grows

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“No one learns something new and then holds it entirely independent of what they already know. We incorporate it into the little edifice of personal knowledge that we have been creating in our minds our entire lives.”

Concerns about the usefulness of knowledge and the challenges of information overload predate contemporary anxieties by decades, centuries, if not millennia. In The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (public library) — which gave us this fantastic illustration of how the Gutenberg press embodied combinatorial creativitySamuel Arbesman explores why, in a world in constant flux with information proliferating at overwhelming rates, understanding the underlying patterns of how facts change equips us for better handling the uncertainty around us. (He defines fact as “a bit of knowledge that we know, either as individuals or as a society, as something about the state of the world.”)

Arbesman writes in the introduction:

Knowledge is like radioactivity. If you look at a single atom of uranium, whether it’s going to decay — breaking down and unleashing its energy — is highly unpredictable. It might decay in the next second, or you might have to sit and stare at it for thousands, or perhaps even millions, of years before it breaks apart.

But when you take a chunk of uranium, itself made up of trillions upon trillions of atoms, suddenly the unpredictable becomes predictable.. We know how uranium atoms work in the aggregate. As a group of atoms, uranium is highly regular. When we combine particles together, a rule of probability known as the law of large numbers takes over, and even the behavior of a tiny piece of uranium becomes understandable. If we are patient enough, half of a chunk of uranium will break down in 704 million years, like clock-work. This number — 704 million years — is a measurable amount of time, and it is known as the half-life of uranium.

It turns out that facts, when viewed as a large body of knowledge, are just as predictable. Facts, in the aggregate, have half-lives: We can measure the amount of time for half of a subject’s knowledge to be overturned. There is science that explores the rates at which new facts are created, new technologies developed, and even how facts spread. How knowledge changes can be understood scientifically.

This is a powerful idea. We don’t have to be at sea in a world of changing knowledge. Instead, we can understand how facts grow and change in the aggregate, just like radioactive materials. This book is a guide to the startling notion that our knowledge — even what each of us has in our head — changes in understandable and systematic ways.

Indeed, Arbesman’s conception depicts facts as the threads of which our networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity are woven:


Facts are how we organize and interpret our surroundings. No one learns something new and then holds it entirely independent of what they already know. We incorporate it into the little edifice of personal knowledge that we have been creating in our minds our entire lives. In fact, we even have a phrase for the state of affairs that occurs when we fail to do this: cognitive dissonance.

Facts, says Arbesman, live on a continuum from the very rapidly changing (like the stock market and the weather) to those whose pace of change is so slow it’s imperceptible to us (like the number of continents on Earth and the number of fingers on the human hand), in the mid-range of which live mesofacts — the facts that change at the meso, or middle, of the timescale. These include facts that change over a single lifetime. For instance, my grandmother, who celebrates her 76th birthday today, learned in grade school that there were a little over 2 billion people living on Earth and a hundred elements in the periodic table, but we’ve recently passed seven billion and there are now 118 known elements. But, rather than fretting about this impossibly rapid informational treadmill, Arbesman finds comfort in patterns:

Facts change in regular and mathematically understandable ways. And only by knowing the pattern of our knowledge’s evolution an we be better prepared for its change.

He offers a curious example of the exponential nature of knowledge through the history of scientific research:

If you look back in history you can get the impression that scientific discoveries used to be easy. Galileo rolled objects down slopes; Robert Hooke played with a spring to learn about elasticity; Isaac Newton poked around his own eye with a darning needle to understand color perception. It took creativity and knowledge (and perhaps lack of squeamishness or regard for one’s own well-being) to ask the right questions, but the experiments themselves could be very simple. Today, if you want to make a discovery in physics, it helps to be part of a ten-thousand-member team that runs a multibillion-dollar atom smasher. It takes even more money, more effort, and more people to find out new things.

Indeed, until very recently, no one was particularly interested in the increasing difficulty of discovery, but Arbesman and his team decided to examine the precise pace of change in just how much harder discovery is getting. He looked at the history of three specific fields of science — mammal species, asteroids, and chemical elements — and determined that size was a good proxy for ease of discovery: Smaller creatures and asteroids are harder to discover; in chemistry, he used inverse size since larger elements are harder to create and detect. He plotted the results and what emerged was a clear pattern of exponential decay in the ease of discovery:

What this means is that the ease of discovery doesn’t drop by the same amount every year — it declines by the same fraction each year, a sort of reverse compound interest. For example, the size of asteroids discovered annually gets 2.5 percent smaller each year. In the first few years, the ease of discovery drops off quickly; after early researchers pick the low-hanging fruit, it continues to ‘decay’ for a long time, becoming slightly harder without ever quite becoming impossible.

And yet:

However it happens, scientific discovery marches forward. We are in an exceptional time, when the number of scientists is growing rapidly and consists of the majority of scientists who have ever lived. We have massive collaborative projects, from the Manhattan Project to particle accelerators, that have and are unearthing secrets of our cosmos. Yet, while this era of big science has allowed for the shockingly fast accumulation of knowledge, this growth of science is not unexpected.

Arbesman highlights the practical application beyond the cerebral understanding of how knowledge becomes obsolete:

Scholars in the field of information science in the 1970s were concerned with understanding the half-life of knowledge for a specific reason: protecting libraries from being overwhelmed.

In our modern digital information age, this sounds strange. But in the 1970s librarians everywhere were coping with the very real implications of the exponential growth of knowledge: Their libraries were being inundated. They needed ways to figure out which volumes they could safely discard. If they knew the half-life of a book or article’s time to obsolescence, it would go a long way to providing a means of avoiding overloading a library’s capacity. Knowing the half-lives of a library’s volumes would give a librarian a handle on how long books should be kept before they are just taking up space on the shelves, without being useful.

So a burst of research was conducted into this area. Information scientists examined citation data, and even usage data in libraries, in order to answer such questions as, If a book isn’t taken out for decades, is it that important anymore? And should we keep it on our shelves?

These questions, of course, strike very close to home given much of what makes my own heart sing is the excavation of near-forgotten gems that are at once timeless and timely, but that rot away in the dusty corners of humanity’s intellectual library in a culture conditioned us to fetishize the newest. In fact, contrary to what Arbesman suggests, those fears of the 1970s are not at all “strange” in the “digital information age” — if anything, they are, or should be, all the more exacerbated given the self-perpetuating nature of our knowledge biases: the internet is wired to give more weight to information that a greater number of people have already seen, sending the near-forgotten into an increasingly rapid spiral to the bottom, however “timeless and timely” that information may inherently be.

Still, The Half-life of Facts offers a fascinating and necessary look at the pace of human knowledge and what its underlying patterns might reveal about the secrets of intellectual progress, both for us as individuals and collectively, as a culture and a civilization.

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