Complex ambiguities

Rebecca Solnit from Ploughshares, May 2016: “We live in a time when …purveyors of conventional wisdom like to report on the future more than the past. They draw on polls and false analogies to announce what is going to happen next, and their frequent errors… don’t seem to impede their habit of prophecy or our willingness to abide them. ‘We don’t actually know’ is their least favorite thing to report.” [My italics.]

I am the sort of reader who loves to hear experts announce “We don’t actually know.” But I recognize I am in the minority–in this respect–in my culture. That most Americans are willing to abide by such speculative prophecies worries me a bit, and I do what I can in the classroom to waken my students to the possibility of erroneous thinking, even on the part of supposed experts and aggregate sources.

Yes, once again I am teaching argument to freshmen…the classic example of what Solnit calls naïve cynics:

Non-pundits, too, use bad data and worse analysis to pronounce with great certainty on future inevitabilities, present impossibilities, and past failures. The mind-set behind these statements is what I call naïve cynicism. It bleeds the sense of possibility and maybe the sense of responsibility out of people.

Maybe it also says something about the tendency to oversimplify. If simplification means reducing things to their essentials, oversimplification tosses aside the essential as well. It is a relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world that generally offers neither, a desire to shove nuances and complexities into clear-cut binaries. Naïve cynicism concerns me because it flattens out the past and the future, and because it reduces the motivation to participate in public life, public discourse, and even intelligent conversation that distinguishes shades of gray, ambiguities and ambivalences, uncertainties, unknowns, and opportunities.

Scholarly argument should ideally create discourse, not embattled absolutism on things that cannot ever be “proven.” In fact, I have forbidden my students to employ the word “prove” (or any of its conjugations) in their argument papers. They know my rationale for this lexical excision; I also warn them away from “always,” “never,” and “everyone.” But they are not yet experienced enough critical thinkers to recognize that my practice is also to encourage research and nuance, to shove them (gently) out of their naïve cynicism into the world of no-easy-answers, no-slippery-slope-thinking; a world of wonderfully complex ambiguities waiting to be more fully explored.

I think of my oldest child who, many years ago, was insistent on knowing ahead of time how everything was going to turn out: “Does the movie have a happy ending?” “Does the Little Red Hen get anyone to help make her bread?” “Can I win this game?”photo ann e. michael

Raising a child who is temperamentally anxious requires a form of parenting that offers comfort but admits to unknowingness. (Next up on my reading list: America the Anxious, by Ruth Whippman!) Solnit says the alternative to naïve cynicism is “an active response to what arises, a recognition that we often don’t know what is going to happen ahead of time, and an acceptance that whatever takes place will usually be a mixture of blessings and curses.”

I don’t think I have ever heard a more accurate description of what being a human entails.

 

 

 

 

 

Story as vagabond: Intizar Hussain

Kahani to awara hoti hai. Story is a vagabond…My nani…used to tell me a story in which a girl says to her father, “I love you as much as salt.” My nani didn’t know about King Lear…She belonged to a tradition of storytelling in which space was unbounded and time was fluid; the hero could travel across forests instantly, and ignore borders separating Heaven, Earth, and Hell. Fairy princesses and monkeys spoke classical languages, and trees and birds told stories. This made for a more generous world, and, of course, a more imaginatively vibrant one; and it made the question “What does it mean to be human on this Earth?” a genuinely inclusive one–because the answers had to account for our relations with everything around us. It is because I am an inheritor of this way of thinking and being in which boundaries are always porous, always shifting, that I can accept that there is a grave of a Muslim disciple of Krishna in Brindiban…

~Intizar Hussain, Pakistani (but, earlier in  his life, Indian–from Dibai) fiction writer, from an interview with Alok Bhalla in Manoa journal. [The surname can be spelled either Hussain or Husain in English.]

33414458Bhalla–one of several translators of Husain’s work into English–comments during this interview: “The poet-storyteller is both blessed and cursed; he is exiled from Heaven and the courts, but he understands how integrally he is ‘of this Earth’–that is, secular. This seems to be the tradition in which you have been trying to locate yourself. Isn’t that why both the religious fanatics and the ideologically motivated find it difficult to accept you?”

~

Earth–we are embodied of earth, part of earth, indivisible from our earthliness, and we exist in relation to the things of this earth.

It might be wise to stay mindful of our necessary integration with all things earthly and embodied, to recognize how intricately we are connected. Bhalla, whom I met at this year’s AWP, mentioned that Husain was fundamentally opposed to identity politics; in  his generous inclusiveness, he believed that to define oneself under a single identity forces boundary-relationships with others, that tribalism has led to nationalism and thence to genocide in far too many instances of human history.

Naturally that means he had a fraught relationship with Pakistan itself, and–to quite some extent–with Islam [he upheld the notion of Mussalmani]. He was revered enough and diplomatic enough to keep those boundaries porous and those relationships open.

Few of us will ever be as wise.

~

This lovely issue of Manoa features cover artwork and illustrations by Imram Qureshi, whose work I walked upon at the Met in NYC, roof garden installation, 2013.

 

Relationships, resistance, AWP

This year’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference vibrated with emotional content, resistance, persistence, and truths through facts and lived experiences–a host of perspectives and a sense of excitement enhanced by the host city: Washington, D.C., where the recent transition to a new government administration has been controversial, particularly among citizens who value social justice, education, the environment, and the arts. Some citizens feel that they are themselves outsiders, outliers, critical observers of the social norm, square pegs, immigrants, misfits, name your descriptor here:_______.

Maybe no surprise, but many of those who are not-quite-the-social-norm also happen to be writers.Adversaries 1

About 15,000 writers, teachers of writing, publishers of writing, promoters of writing, and lovers of writing showed up in D.C.; and I’m guessing a very large percentage of us feel we have, in one way or another, a little trouble “fitting in” with society and social expectations. We happen to write, also. What gives good writing its jazz is that there are zillions of fascinating, off-beat, marvelously creative perspectives a human being can write on just about anything.

One sense that came through to me as I listened to authors and teachers is that writing is almost automatically resistance. Resistance usually connotes against, as against a “negative” behavior, objective, rule, law, or person, for example. We can resist silence, though, and silence on its own is not negative; it is only something to resist in relation to an event or law that might be better spoken about. We write in relation to, and often that looks like against. But it isn’t that black and white (of course). Even when the ink is near-black and the page is near-white and the resistance feels like “writer’s block”–resisting the very act of revealing, speaking, communication.

Relation makes resistance and writing happen. Relationships make community and communication develop. Relationships connect the virtual world, and relationships link the long-dead writer to the living reader in a quiet room or on a crowded train.

~

This past week, thousands of (largely introverted) writers convened in a convention center in the nation’s Capitol; several square blocks hummed with interconnections that spanned far beyond those city streets, those bland conventional multi-storied buildings…into the social world and social media, into the range of the arts, the hearts of fellow human beings. The crowds could be overwhelming, but the energy was palpable and exciting (even to this introvert, who did need to retreat from the throngs now and then–thank goodness for “quiet lounges” and hotel rooms).

Did I mention the slightly off-the-cuff passion and stirring intensity of Azar Nafisi‘s speech, and the resonant coincidence of how relevant it was to have a naturalized American citizen, born and educated in Iran, as a keynote speaker? [The decision to have her speak was made over a year in advance of the conference.] Did I mention the honest and often amusing conversation between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chimamanda Adichie, who is a dynamic one-person cultural ambassador, much as Nafisi is? What about poet Terrance Hayes‘ brilliant alliterative rhythmic sonnets that were sometimes-brutal take-downs of a president whose motives and values he mightily questions? Did I mention Rita Dove‘s transcendent reading? My discovery of a hugely famous Pakistani writer, Intizar Husain? Marvelous writing on The Body Electric, in three excellent essays–why, yes, I could say more, but I’m tired now and “still processing,” and post-conference life resumes…

~

Given some long-running, almost chronic adversity the beloveds and I are facing, before I close I want to give a thumbs-up to Emily McDowell. Emily McDowell’s line of Empathy Cards are really worth looking at when you have no words.

Sometimes, there isn’t a card for that.

Metaphor & mind

In a recent New Yorker article about the trial of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, Jelani Cobb reports that during the lead prosecutor’s presentation

Roof’s mother sank down on the bench as he delivered his opening statement, which contained details of the crime that had previously been withheld from the press. At a certain point, she slumped over. It seemed for a moment that she had fainted, but she was taken to a hospital, and it was later learned that she had suffered a heart attack. She survived, but did not return for the remainder of the trial.

In her situation, I might have had the same response. How metaphorical: the heart revolts from within–an embodied reaction. When I read about this incident, I thought of cognitive scientist/philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who have been pioneering the concept that the mind and body evolved together and cannot be separated through the literal, analytical, categorical approaches of classic Western thought.

Languages the world over use body-based metaphors and gestures that reinforce how our  minds are integrated with and connected to our human bodies–we intuit from the gut; a situation makes our skin crawl; we place hands over hearts to demonstrate love, loyalty, compassion. Medical science confirms what people have long understood, in a “folk physiology” way, for years: emotional and intellectual stress has physical expressions and repercussions.

Lakoff and Johnson have been investigating such universal human phenomena since the 1970s. Their work has implications for a wide range of endeavors from artificial intelligence to brain trauma. In 1999, when Philosophy in the Flesh was published, they said Western philosophy needs to retool its thinking from the ground up, the ground being the body itself.

Reason, they assert, is as embodied as emotion; and their argument that intellectual functioning arises metaphorically through the physiological experiences of the (human) body is persuasive and extensively documented through research, particularly neurological research. Exactly where what we term “consciousness” arises may never be determined, but phenomenology, Taoism, and empirical science converge with what we are learning about synapses, cells, hormones, and the neural network to suggest there may be an answer as to how consciousness emerges; and that answer is likely to be biological.

brain

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The brain, the heart, the entire bodily system under emotional, mental, psychological duress, the conflicting moods of love, grief, anger, fear, and a chasm of misunderstanding; the terrible awe of disbelief–an embodied self might well collapse, physically, literally, under the metaphorical strain.

 

 

Knowing the mind

I am reading an unusual pairing of books…Joseph Fins’ Rights Come to Mind and George Lakoff & Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh. One is about traumatic brain (and to some extent, spinal) injury and the differences between minimally conscious states and persistent vegetative states, and what we know–or mostly, don’t know–about the brain and its ability to recover or reorganize (see also Will Storr’s article from 2015 about some recent medical discoveries in neurology).

The other book is an inquiry into how Western philosophy may be seriously challenged by scientific, empirical findings about the embodiment of the conscious self. Then, after suggesting that neural pathways help us to create abstract reason–largely through metaphor–he asks whether we can adequately understand the world through science alone!

Fins’ book is not elegantly written, from a literary standpoint; but he raises hugely important questions about consciousness, healthcare decision-making, medical institutions’ and physicians’ difficulties dealing with how to measure consciousness and brain activity–to determine who may be “locked-in” or who is minimally conscious, or which patients will never recover any conscious neural activity again. Fins details the agony of family members making impossible decisions in a medical system that often views brain-trauma victims as medical failures when the patient does not recover quickly enough; he asks us: by what measure is quickly-enough? (Usually, as determined by a health care insurer…alas, my family has been snarling with too-general insurance categories lately, so I am sympathetic to Fins’ perspective).

These are tough areas to investigate, and his argument is that physicians and researchers have not spent enough time investigating them. He also asserts that this would not be a waste of money on irreparably-injured patients, because we can learn much about the brain’s capacity to heal through observation, therapy, and scans of such people. He takes pains to be certain his readers recognize how much remains unknown about the brain and human consciousness. (Here, I refer my own readers to Douglas Hofstadter’s book I Am a Strange Loop).

In the Storr article cited above, Greg Downey, co-author of the blog Neuroanthropology, cautions: “People are so excited about neuroplasticity they talk themselves into believing anything.” And it is true, there’s a chance of false hope and huge disappointment here. But the brain does exhibit an astonishing ability to rewire itself–in the body.

Which brings me to Lakoff & Johnson’s text. Lakoff calls himself a cognitive scientist, not a philosopher. He says, “In 1978, I discovered that metaphor was not a minor kind of trope used in poetry, but rather a fundamental mechanism of mind.” He and his colleagues have gone on to provide a body of evidence to support this claim that they’ve been working on since the late 90s.

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neural matrix fiber topography, Johns Hopkins University

~

As a poet interested in neurology and in philosophy, these claims interest me. As a person whose elderly best-beloveds are now beginning to show evidence of significant cognitive lacunae…or “decline”…I am interested in losses of neural plasticity, or perhaps a misfiring in the processes of rewiring. The evidence of such losses are, indeed, embodied. Gaps in the ability to recognize metaphor or analogy appear. On a recent visit, the nonagenarian said, “I can no longer seem to say any of the things I want to say, that I hear in my head, but can’t…can’t seem to…make. Make into the world. Do you know what I’m saying?”

~

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

~ Emily Dickinson

 

 

 

Head in a book

I am tackling some fairly difficult texts* at the moment and, when I need to find something less academic, have interspersed them with poetry and short fiction. In the latter genre, Ted Chiang‘s work has been a marvelous discovery for me. His speculative fiction derives its plot points from scientific and mythological sources. Though his writing style differs from hers, much about the short stories reminds me of the late Octavia Butler‘s work. “Understand” is a fascinating perspective on intellect vs consciousness, “Tower of Babylon” a lovely mythology that owes something to Borges, Calvino, archeology, the Hebrew Bible, and torus theory.

As to poetry, I’m reading Moira Egan‘s sometimes hilarious and often authentically moving Hot Flash Sonnets. Although “women of a certain age” can easily relate to the apparent topic of the sonnets, these poems appeal to much more than insight into female physiology or stereotyped emotionality/mood swings; they are about desire of many kinds, about taste and sex and grief, aging and joy–moments the world opens up to us and sings (in sonnet form!).

Yes, I know history is going on around me; and here I am with my head in a book.

It’s better than having my head in the sand. I’m learning something!

 

 

 

*Philosophy in the Flesh; Untranslatable: A Philosophical Lexicon.

AWP ahead

I have been looking at my bookshelves with a certain apprehensive dismay.

They are…overfull. Here’s part of the shelving where I keep poetry collections. I can’t fit any more in without some “weeding.”

books1

And then there are the other bookshelves, five or six of them, that are also becoming piled high with wonderful and interesting texts.

Now, this would not necessarily constitute a problem. I love books. I refer to many of them often, and I re-read some of them, and I lend some out to friends. A few of the books are even slightly valuable, as the majority of them are out of print.

books3

The reason I am thinking about the bookshelf issue is that in a month, I am heading to Washington, D.C. for the annual AWP Conference & Bookfair. I have missed the past few conferences because they were held in Los Angeles, Vancouver, and the like; I cannot take that much time off work nor easily pay for the airfare. But D.C. is not far away! I am not presenting this year, but I will be attending.

The Bookfair, though–it is a haven for book lovers who are fond of hard-to-find literature, small-press poetry and fiction, little journals and big anthologies, teaching texts, new authors. I know I will return home laden with books.

Where will I put them? Is it time to prepare for additions by donating a few of the current volumes? Should I just purchase more bookshelves? Well, I guess I will solve that problem later. For now, I eagerly await the conference.