Art and “human intelligence”

I’ve gotten almost to the end of Brian Boyd’s intriguing and well-argued book On the Origin of Stories, which makes fairly large claims about sociality, cognition, theory of mind, art, and storytelling (ie, fiction) given an evolutionary perspective (art as adaptation). The first 200 pages lay the foundation for his claims; he provides evidence from the “hard” sciences, most often biology and neurology, and from archeology, anthropology, and psychology, to back up his theory that art is an evolutionary adaptation humans developed in order to live as social animals. And that art is necessary for human cognition in terms of further developing intelligence and the ability to communicate among our peers: it is cognitive play, practice and skill strengthening for mind and muscle.

Big claims, and occasionally hard to “prove” from the hard sciences. I believe he does a good job with that set of proofs, but I’m not a scientist. His claims based on social sciences—anthropology, sociology, psychology—are very convincing; but many people have arguments with those fields because they are so apparently subjective. Most exciting to me is the way Boyd synthesizes neurological findings with evolutionary developments.

Actually, most exciting to me are his chapters on the Odyssey, but that may be because I am a literature geek. He essentially writes a literary analysis of the Odyssey based upon the inferences and findings in the first half of this book (evolution) rather than the customary literary analysis grounded in, say, context or culture of style or theme, ad infinitum. The resulting analysis is, for me, a truly exciting way to look at Homer’s work and why it matters now, as well as why it mattered then.

Boyd comes close to making the assertion that Homer made Socrates possible, and hence all of Western civilization’s philosophy and social intelligence. Of course, he is careful not to go that far in his argument—he steers as far as he can from logical fallacies— but the thought certainly feels planted in the reader’s mind. His argument does suggest that metacognition in human beings is the definer that makes us human, and art as more-than-play separates human from not-human. He also demonstrates that the Odyssey offers great leaps beyond older epics and posits that the author(s) composed the epic for contemporary audiences that were capable of intelligent, sophisticated, “modern” thought processes; the piece is therefore not primitive literature, as some critics claim.

Boyd’s work has also turned my thoughts to how the attributes of attention, perspective and foreknowledge, overturned expectations, audience-sociality, false belief, cooperation and competition work in the poem as well as in narrative. Granted, many poems have a narrative framework, however thinly sketched, but not all of them do. When there is no narrative frame, these other aspects of storytelling (audience expectations in particular) take precedence and can be employed in almost infinite ways, bounded only by imagination and the willingness of the reader to pay attention as the writer earns that attention through a host of innovative or traditional skills.

A last thought…I spent the long weekend visiting octogenarian friends, both of whom are wonderful tellers of stories. The value of such people to human society is priceless:

“Story by its nature invites us to shift from our own perspective to that of another, and perhaps another and another.”  ~Brian Boyd

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Just-so

This classic illustration was posted here: http://www.jwoolfden.com/classics.html

OKAY, cynics, I know this may be a bit of a gloss; but here is another older post which is the keynote speech I gave for DeSales’ Sigma Tau Delta induction (Honors society of English majors), April 2010.

~

Why the English Major Is So Adaptable: A ‘Just-So’ Story

When I was an undergraduate, Oh Best Beloved, I was not at all certain of my life path. I attended an alternative, seminar-college program that—gasp—did not require me to proclaim an academic major. In my first two years of college, I wandered through classes in studio art, Renaissance history, feminist literature, social anthropology, psych, physics, dance, and philosophy. Then, I began reading in earnest. Previously, reading had been merely an obsessively entertaining hobby; as a junior, I wanted to learn the “how” of writing. I graduated with enough credits in both English and Philosophy to have been a double-major, if my institution had required majors, or to have received an undergraduate creative writing degree, if such a thing had existed in days of yore.

And then, I was out in the world. The world was in a terrible recession. Jobs were scarce. Inflation was in the double digits. Gas prices were skyrocketing. The sky was falling, and I was a newly-minted English major.

All my Wise Elders advised me to specialize. That meant going to graduate school, which I probably should have done a little sooner, or learning a trade. I thought I could survive outside of academia despite the economic woes, the scarce want-ads. My reasoning was that I had four years of humanities training in critical thinking, research, and problem-solving and that at 21 years old it was time to put those theories into application. I thought I had learned to be adaptable.

And what do you think, O My Children?

I was right.

You are likewise English majors, and you are also facing a time of recession and a paucity of careers in your chosen area of interest. This will not hinder your success, though it may make your career journey a little more…circuitous. Or shall we say: intriguing. But you like a challenge, don’t you? That’s the most terrific thing about choosing creative writing, or English, or rhetoric, or literature—the more you study them, the more intricate and complex and revealing these subjects are. I have never met an English major who wasn’t also a dedicated life-long learner. But I have met English majors who are lawyers, and psychologists, and social workers, and business executives, and filmmakers, and visual artists, and physicians, and ecologists, and diplomats, even computer geeks, not to mention those other careers: screenwriters, playwrights, poets, novelists, journalists, bloggers, teachers…

So, Best Beloved, do not sell yourself short. Furthermore, do not expect a “Reader, I married him” moment with your career. Allow yourself room to transform. Carpe diem.

What that meant for me back in 1979 was a temp job for the legal discovery department of a large law firm. From there, I signed on as a member of the International Union of Typographers No. 6 and learned a specialty: typographical proofreading. That field went extinct with the advent of desktop publishing. But by then, I’d jumped to advertising, which I hated, and into magazine work, which wasn’t so bad. There’s a Darwinian term for this: co-adaptation. I was finally getting close to a more specialist use of my English major background as the economy improved; and I married and had children and, in time, went to graduate school for the scholarly pursuits I’d missed so much.

I didn’t starve. Neither will you. You can do research. You can make yourself clear. You know your audiences may require different modes or styles of you, and you’ve learned how to adapt yourself and your arguments to those audiences. You can be persuasive. That’s how I got my first job after the temp work wound down; I was inexperienced but convincing. Even in a tight job market, employers are seeking people like you—adaptable, well-educated people. My husband recently directed me to an article in the New York Times that stated today’s businesspeople want employees who are clear communicators, especially in writing. This is partly because executives do their own writing nowadays. Fewer secretaries to rely on; each person’s expected to make herself clear—on her own written merits. Even if it’s email instead of the paper memos of my day.

English majors can write.

The jobs I’ve briefly mentioned paid my bills and got me medical insurance but did not satisfy my urge to practice the how and why of writing, so I did what writers generally do: I wrote. I cannot emphasize enough the role that constant practice of craft plays in the development of a writer. It doesn’t matter if no one sees your work—though I encourage you to share it with others and get feedback and critique—what matters is that you continually practice what you’ve learned in college and extend your education through application and extension of those principles.

If you find yourself in a day job that has little, apparently, to do with your major, don’t despair. Because writing is portable. I still write most of my drafts with pen or pencil in a small notebook, and laptops are pretty easy to transport—you can, with a little self-discipline, write anywhere. In my day, I have written in small dingy office warrens, in the waiting rooms of doctors and music teachers, in the parking lot while the high school band wrapped up its practice, in the sun beside the dressage ring at the horse farm, while my babies were napping, while the laundry was cycling, in the wee hours of the morning before anyone else wakens. The poems and essays I drafted under these circumstances sometimes reflected the places of their composition—but not always. I have waxed metaphysical in playgrounds. Another example of becoming adaptable out of necessity, Best Beloved, when the Great Magician or the Djinn of All Deserts or the small god Nqa tried me with obstacles to test my persistence.

Make the time to write, because writers can get rusty. Above all, make the time to read, because after you graduate, reading is the best way to continue your literary education.

But you knew that.

Of course, there is graduate school. And there are writing seminars and getaways and retreats and conferences. If you haven’t got the time or money to get to writers’ conferences or workshops, you can adapt by exchanging literary emails with a few like-minded friends or gathering in a library or coffee shop to exchange work or discuss books that excite you. Scholarship may seem like a solitary pursuit, but it benefits from lively interactions with other human beings.

Yes, Oh Best Beloved, do remember other human beings. We do not, after all, write only for ourselves; we write in and of and for a community of people. If our work is obscure, obtuse, or unclear, we are not taking part in this communication. The most fundamental purpose of language is to make clear our intent to another person who is, after all, not inside our brain but functioning under his or her own neurological system. Language—in our case, English—is the most formidable tool for demanding, commanding, sharing, expressing. Those in this room are understandably passionate about it. I am pleased to be among you. The world badly needs your talents, enthusiasm, and the abilities you possess to analyze the facts and transform yourselves and others because, My Children, the English Major somehow became adaptable, and that is all to the good.

Reveries toward childhood

My childhood was happy and full of isolation—bored, lonely, occasionally melancholy daydreams and reflections. Some readers will find contradiction in that opening sentence, but Gaston Bachelard would have understood. His chapter (in The Poetics of Reverie) on Childhood and Reverie resonates deeply with me.

The claims Bachelard makes for the crucial importance of childhood reverie are that the child, solitary, daydreaming, finds happiness as the “master” of his or her reveries and that poetry is the way adults can return to the deep daydreams of childhood in which humans are—briefly—free beings and fully receptive: “Poets convince us that all our childhood reveries are worth starting over again.”

He further claims that images “reveal the intimacy of the world” and that all poetic images are a kind of remembering. I suppose this particular claim for poetry puts Bachelard in the “deep image” arena of poetry—Rilke, for example, as filtered through the concepts of Carl Jung, whose influence appears everywhere in The Poetics of Reverie. I waver in my complete acceptance of this claim, though I can’t yet articulate why—because I do agree image can evoke, or even be part and parcel of, intimacy. It may not be the sole method of achieving the shock of recognition or the tug of familiarity among readers, however. I’d assert that Ammons, Menashe, even Ponsot (in her tiny poems in Springing) get there by other means.

What I love about Bachelard’s philosophy on childhood reveries is the idea of “reveries toward childhood.” Interesting phrase, and I wonder if the translator (Daniel Russell) struggled with it. To dream toward childhood denotes an intentional action, a moving forward in order to reach back, a paradox. He claims we can almost reach (regain) the child’s “astonishment of being,” our “world of the first time,” through reading poems. We daydream with the poem itself…not with the poet, who remains a distinct individual with his or her own being and past.

I’ve experienced this feeling, and now Bachelard has described it for me.

The philosopher was late in his life when he composed these reflections; this is his last book. As he explores the “uselessness” of childhood memories, the flashes of recall through sensory stimuli, he posits that reveries toward childhood nourish the person who is in “the second half of life.” Combining memory and reverie can restore us, he says; and to do so, we first beautify our pasts—even our tragic episodes are reconsidered, reconstructed, through the lens of distant memory. (Hence the opportunity for sentiment). I think he means that once we have dealt with vivid past traumas earlier in adulthood, older people are able to recall the amazement of having once been new to the world. Perhaps this is merely sentiment, but it is certainly a phenomenon that appears in many works of drama, fiction, even memoir.

Bachelard describes such experiences as “the strange synthesis of regret and consolation” and adds that “a beautiful poem makes us pardon a very ancient grief.” (I love that sentence.)

In this way—among other ways, I might add—poetry’s images help us believe in the world, revive “abolished” reveries in a fresh light; the poet’s images may not be our images at all, yet they work to move the reader toward childhood, by which I mean toward a seeing-afresh of human experience. I may be parting ways with Msr. Bachelard here, for he classifies these images as almost wholly archetypal, and I do not; nonetheless, I don’t think our differences negate his claims nor hurt my general agreement with his insights. The amazement that took off the top of Emily Dickinson’s head when she read a great poem, the astonishment of being that arrives via the poem, strikes me (and the pun is intended) as exactly like the Zen whisk: “Wake up!”

And what is a child but a being who is wholly awake to the world?

“When we are children, people show us so many things that we lose the profound sense of seeing, Bachelard says. Yes, like Whitman when he “heard the learnéd astronomer”… Whitman’s speaker—the child in him—ventures outside to see the stars. He does not need to be shown.

This is a long blog entry, I know. But if you’ve gotten this far, I hope you are eager to go read some poems now.

Wake up and dream!

Still daydreaming in adolescence…(Switzerland, 1974)

Outside the (type) box

Many years ago, back when there was a career called typographer, I was one. I apprenticed to typographers because I had superior proofreading skills, a background in art and design, there was a recession, jobs were few, and I was a quick learner. In an essentially blue-collar job, I was decidedly outside the box: I was a 21-year-old female with a BPhil in philosophy and literature. But I was a terrible waitress. So, in desperation, I essentially talked my way into a job at a typeshop in New York.

A voracious reader all my life, I felt attracted to the potential type offered for expression via the medium of words. I’d studied art since the second grade, so the aesthetic side of typography fascinated me, too. I got into the business just as the field was waning due to the innovations offered by phototype methods, digital typography, and the invention of desktop publishing. Nevertheless, typography kept me fed and housed for a few years while I learned to discern the differences between various counters, serifs, descenders, dashes,  x-heights, weights and the rest. I read books on the history of type design and the history of the alphabet itself. My obsession with words and letters kept me inside the typography box, though I suppose I was often more like a stray Caslon e in the Helvetica drawer.

Wood type was no longer in use, but I used to purchase wooden type fonts–the individual letters–and type cases, because they are so folk-art-appealing and so potentially useful. As collectors began to scour flea markets for wooden type, I bought metal fonts and slugs instead; I’m particularly fond of ampersands and dingbats. (If you’re in Wisconsin and you want to see what the age of wooden type in the USA was like, check out the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum.)

Two of the shops I worked at still used metal type occasionally, though they had mostly switched to digitally-mastered film type; and one shop boasted three Linotype machines. Two of the machines worked. The other was there for parts. The typesetters were all WWII veterans, and the smell of molten lead wafted through the building…it really felt like the end of an era. And it was.

Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine

Working at typeshops engaged my brain in novel kinds of problem-solving and detailed observation, taught me about the lives and careers of men who could have been my great-uncles, satisfied–sometimes–my yearning for aesthetics in the workaday world. An elegant logo or headline still pleases me. I learned about all kinds of odd and wide-ranging things while proofreading, too, while I marked up thousands upon thousands of proof pages; and during my breaks, I read novels. One old-timer at a shop I used to work at told me, “Every proofreader I ever knew read books on his break.” He shook his head as if that were sheer lunacy.

Today, I might note that every computer programmer I know spends his or her break time (and post-work hours) at a computer. It is nice to love something about the work one does for a living.

Typographers today are designers and computer graphics folks who understand how to digitize and digitally set and “cut” fonts for virtual pages. The design tolerances are different, though the challenges of readability and clarity and appropriateness remain. As for proofreaders, there are fewer every year, even though we certainly could use them. AutoCorrect and SpellCheck are woefully inadequate proofreading systems, as I constantly remind my students who don’t know your from you’re or their from there or then from than.

And as for me, I have moved from proofreader and typographer to tutor, instructor, poet…jobs that suit me a bit better, where my quirkiness is more tolerated and thus more conventionally acceptable. I continue to admire thinking and being that is outside of the box, however, and in that spirit I offer you some artwork that moves type outside of its outmoded, old-fashioned box. Click on the cityscapes link to find metal-type cityscapes by Hong Seon Jang. For what artists can do with letters, see also my earlier post on Steve Tobin’s sculpture, “Syntax.”

Creative reading

“There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

~

There’s a difference between simple literacy and genuine reading; that difference is partly discovery, partly imagination, partly hard work, and largely enthusiasm.

“To have great poets, there must be great audiences too,” said Walt Whitman.

Yes, I know I have covered this ground in previous posts. What interests me, though, is the way working on my writing has made me a more active and imaginative reader than I once was. Which may seem an odd thing for a lifelong bookworm to say, but as Stephen King has observed, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” The implication here suggests these skills–or crafts, or tools, or processes–are conspecific. Conspecific is a science term meaning belonging to the same species, and I think it’s an apt word to describe what I am trying to say here. We can have stories without writing, but we cannot have writing without context, whether it is grocery lists or epic narratives; in the literate world, our texts provide us with practically boundless context if we use our imaginations to proceed beyond our physical, past, or immediate experiences into hitherto unknown worlds. When writing imaginatively, we have to engage with what we’ve learned through reading. The writer must be a reader.

Perhaps there are other forms of reading: listening, observation. But we are basically still within the taxa of story. My latest reading material is Brain Boyd’s immense and intriguing volume On the Origin of Stories. This book and Bachelard’s The Poetics of Reverie are producing quite an intellectual and creative mash-up in my mind and firing up some slower synapses that tend to lead to writing of one kind or another. I think there will be poems…sprung from luminous manifold allusions…because these authors have forced my mind into working while I explore the depths of their invention.

O, let us labor over our books with joy! For one never knows what will result.

22 years ago this week

Here’s another post from some time back, one I have updated to reflect current experiences: the graduation and the 22nd birthday of the subject of this brief reflection.

azaleas by Ann E. Michael

The morning was hot, and I had not kept up with the gardening. I needed to get the zucchini seeds, etc. in the ground before the weather got too hot and dry. We were a little behind schedule with the garden because we had a 17-month-old, and I was 9 months pregnant. I was sowing and weeding as women have done since the earliest establishment of agriculture, heavy with child, my back aching, working like a woman obsessed.

You know, that “nesting” thing you hear about with mothers-to-be? I was a week overdue and sick of waiting around; and  gardens won’t wait. The weather was perfect for planting the post-frost seeds. The time was–of course–ripe. Eight hours later, I gave birth to a daughter.

A couple of years later, too busy to write much, this set of cinquain stanzas arrived in my mind (published in 2001 in June Cotner’s anthology Mothers & Daughters, A Poetry Celebration).

Now, that infant is a grown woman with a  college degree. Happy Birthday, Daughter.

To My Daughter

Early
morning I had
planted seeds, cucumber,
melon, squash—I pressed them into
warm earth.

The blood
in my body
sang and I listened for
a cry to join my own—straining
to hear.

And there
you were, all pink,
unfolding in our hands,
a blossom opening with a squall:
daughter.

© 1994 Ann E. Michael

Fragments…

I just want to re-blog this brief and thought-provoking piece by Michael Klein in Ploughshares:

Notes on Narcissism and the Line

Klein’s musings have inspired me to go back to my drafts of the past year and look more closely at fragments, lines, and the self in the poems.

I’ve also discovered, via Deborah Barlow’s delightful art-centered blog, Slow Muse, the art and prose of Altoon Sultan. Reading and viewing creative pieces and creative critical thinking is a marvelous spur toward one’s own creative endeavors. Although I do risk spending more time online, reading and viewing, than I ought…

Enjoy!