Difficult books & the death of reading


Philip Yancey worries about “the death of reading” in a recent Washington Post opinion piece; he says that even he, an inveterate reader and possessor of several thousand books, finds it harder than it once was to read for several hours each day. He feels distracted by modern technology’s urgency yet suggests reading–now more than ever–offers not just intellectual but neurological rewards:  “neuroscience proves…it actually takes less energy to focus intently than to zip from task to task. After an hour of contemplation, or deep reading, a person ends up less tired and less neurochemically depleted, thus more able to tackle mental challenges.” (Yancey does not cite the study, so I cannot do so; I think he picked this information up from Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows).

I find I still have time to read; but I am not a well-respected writer of books, articles, opinion columns, and blogs, nor am I asked to appear in public as a speaker very often. Yancey has a life that requires hours at a computer. My life contains less urgency from an audience, although my students–when classes are in session–certainly supply a sense of “prioritize me!” that can get distracting.

Most of us recognize that there are many forms of urgent distractions in our lives.

Anyway, I continue to apply myself to books.


My latest difficult book has a bit of family history. Royce on the Human Self was written by one of my father’s college professors, J. Harry Cotton, and published in 1955. Harry Cotton was a Presbyterian minister who later taught at Wabash College, where my father encountered him. My dad gave me this book a month ago, saying, “I thought you might be interested in this one. I came across it in my shelves and read it, thinking I’d never read it before. But apparently I had, because I see that I annotated it in the margins. And I hadn’t recalled that he inscribed it to me.” The human self must overlap with consciousness, so why not introduce myself to Royce, especially given the circumstances?

Josiah Royce is not a name I encountered in Philosophy coursework, even when I was studying William James’ work (it was undergraduate study, so we did not get to James’ correspondence with Royce and their disagreements over the Absolute; James & Royce were colleagues and very good friends).


My father notes the misspelling of his name by Dr. Cotton. I note the logic chart my father annotated above.

Royce’s philosophy was rather Hegelian–he studied in Göttingen–and he was a long-time proponent of “idealism” (defined in what strikes me as a rather phenomenologist way) based upon his rendering of what constitutes the Absolute. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, “In his later works, Royce reconceived his metaphysics as an ‘absolute pragmatism’ grounded in semiotics.” Royce moved from idealism into the possibility of objects, which took him for awhile on a symbolic logic train of thinking. He loses me a bit there, despite Dr. Cotton’s quite clearly-written summaries.

An intriguing aspect of the book, for me, is my then-22-year-old father’s marginalia. Sometimes, his notes–in handwriting that has hardly changed in 60 years–make a comment [“Royce denies a self-evident truth contra-Descartes”]. More often, there is a question, or some underlining, that suggests where his interests lay. I notice he seems to have skimmed over the “Logic as the Science of Order” chapter (that’s a section I found to be a bit of a slog myself).

I wonder whether the last chapter, which covers Royce’s late thinking on Christianity, the problem of evil, and salvation, would have made any sense to a person as young as my dad was in ’55. By the time Royce got to his most mature philosophical thinking on god and the human self, he was in his 50s and had experienced the loss of a young adult son to “madness” and typhoid. These are the sort of events that mature the thinking of a thinking and feeling human being such as Royce obviously was. In our early 20s, few of us have that kind of depth to our understanding of mortal, ethical, or spiritual issues.


Nevertheless–my father, influenced to some extent by his Uncle Raymond and by Harry Cotton–chose to go to graduate school in Theology. He may not recall whether Royce’s work on Salvation or Christianity had any bearing on his decision. But I wonder. I think of my dad–a classic extrovert, despite his prodigious reading habits–when I read the following words by Royce concerning the community and the relational aspect of the human self (in the Absolute, or in god, as referred to by the use of his in this quote):

And as the moments of my finite thought are to me when I reflect upon my own meaning and upon the relations of many moments of my life, so my neighbors and I are to the larger Self when, discoursing together about the same objects, we find ourselves as it were but moments in his inclusive unity.

All one. There are many philosophies and theologies that stress that premise.




Coincidence & synthesis

I adore random synthesis. I love how coincident information, ideas, and experiences connect to enrich my understanding or pique my interest.

Today, a friend sent me a link to a chapter from the Dalai Lama’s book and another friend sent me to New York Magazine‘s Science of Us blog to read Cody Delistraty’s piece on the neurology of poetry reading. Meanwhile, I have been cleaning my bookshelves and reading Jane Hirshfield’s Ten Windows.

books1Delistraty’s essay reports on a study (in Germany) conducted by Eugen Wassiliwizky, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, on what happens in the human brain when people read or hear poetry. The Institute has sponsored quite a few studies on the neurological responses to the arts, which offers researchers not just the findings from one area of aesthetics but the opportunity to compare responses across artistic disciplines.

For example:

…[Neurological] responses… seemed to be unique to poetry: Scans taken during the study showed that listening to the poems activated parts of participants’ brains that, as other studies have shown, are not activated when listening to music or watching films.

The authors also found evidence to support the idea of poetry’s pleasure as a slow-building experience, or what they called a “pre-chill”: While listening to poems they found particularly evocative, the listeners subconsciously anticipated the coming emotional arousal in a way that was neurologically similar to the reward anticipation one might get from, for instance, unwrapping a chocolate bar.

Delistraty notes that in this study, “the poetic lines that most emotionally stirred people were also most memorable for them later.”

Our brains ready themselves for surprise, delight, arousal, some emotional leap in the poem–even before the poem ends–anticipation. I know that feeling well. We are anticipating some kind of surprise or delight as the poem unfolds in our reading or listening real-time imaginations: a kind of freedom that we anticipate but cannot expect (the poem may surprise us in ways we had not anticipated; or it may disappoint our hopes).

Hirshfield writes:

On the one hand…poetic transformation occurs by what might be called the paradox of intimate distance. The freedom inherent in art to choose stance, attitude, approach, form, word, is in itself an act of emancipation. When distance increases…we often feel more, not less, because we are able to take in the whole.

What we “take in” as whole includes the phenomenon of reality, even though the poem operates in the imagination–another paradox. Reading a good poem, then, opens consciousness. bkmk-violet

I realize that in the years keeping this blog, I have never yet found a satisfactory understanding of what makes human beings conscious or from whence consciousness originates; but that’s one reason I keep reading and writing, Socratic gadfly that I am. And that brings me to the third random reading that, to my mind, synthesizes well with the essays I’ve mentioned. Here’s an excerpt from one of the Dalia Lama’s books that was posted on Lion’s Roar, a Buddhist-oriented website. In this chapter, His Holiness has been visiting with neurosurgeons and brain researchers at the cutting edge of medical science–people deeply, empirically engaged with the science of the human mind:


The Buddhist understanding of mind is primarily derived from empirical observations grounded in the phenomenology of experience, which includes the contemplative techniques of meditation…

The view that all mental processes are necessarily physical processes is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact. I feel that, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, it is critical that we allow the question to remain open, and not conflate our assumptions with empirical fact…A crucial point about the study of consciousness, as opposed to the study of the physical world, relates to the personal perspective. In examining the physical world, leaving aside the problematic issue of quantum mechanics, we are dealing with phenomena that lend themselves well to the dominant scientific method of the objective, third-person method of inquiry… In the realm of subjective experiences, however, the story is completely different. *


Part of what makes poetry, or any art form, “work” is that appeal to the subjective. Subjectivity excludes the empirical; there’s always, somehow, more to art than science can explain–wonderful as science is. Delistraty writes, “poetry transcends…methodical scrutiny. It valorizes the unconscious, opening us up to new perspectives; it implies the possibility of unlimited pleasure.”

Hirshfield names that pleasure, that surprise, that alteration within the reader “hope” –a wonderful synthesis.



* The Universe in a Single Atom by His Holiness The Dalai Lama; full discussion on https://www.lionsroar.com/studying-mind-from-the-inside/

Beautiful brain

While waiting for the snow to evaporate and melt, the gardener experiences agitation; the days are longer–it must be time to plant seeds…but the soil is too wet and too cold.

Fortunately, there are always books! I have read Daniel Dennett on religion, George Lakoff on the embodied basis for philosophy, and am plowing rapidly through Ruth Whippman’s (acerbic and very funny) America the Anxious.  Also I am slowly savoring an anthology of Jewish women’s poems, The Dybbuk of Delight, that I randomly discovered in the library.


But here’s a book I want to own, when I can justify more book purchases: Beautiful Brain: the Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, because Art! because Neuroscience! because Beauty! The blog Hyperallergic says the drawings are going to be touring museums (see The Dynamic Brain Drawings of the Father of Neuroscience), which might also become a must-do for me when the exhibit travels to New York City next January.

What Cajal was doing back at the turn of the last century still inspires artists, not just medical scientists, today (see my post on Greg Dunn’s neuro-artworks). These compellingly beautiful and quite accurate drawings may also inspire poets and armchair philosophers who have lately spent a great deal of time pondering the resilience of the brain and the challenges that rupture a sense of self when cognition is interrupted.



Credit goes to Abrams Books for these graphics and for the decision to publish this beautiful text.



Garden breach

Summer solstice. The robins are on their second brood; mulberries are ripening, and the bluebirds have arrived for the feast.

Fifteen years ago, we set up my garden to be as impregnable as possible from incursions by deer, groundhogs, and rabbits. We accomplished this by digging a narrow trench on the perimeter, lining the trench with wire mesh fabric, and filling the trench with gravel–after setting the steel posts and putting the steel wire fencing in place. The strategy even deterred weeds for about three years.

But rain and snow and air and therefore rust, along with ground heave and the occasional bump by lawnmowers, have had their way. While deer still ignore the plot, this year, bunnies have breached the fence. It’s time to find a new way to keep them from the edges.


I have previously written about how fringes and perimeters can be boundaries or places of activity and fluidity, so it seems I am a hypocrite for keeping my rabbits at bay. Maybe I ought to find a balance? Living with their denuding of my carrot tops?

–No, they’ve plenty to eat in my lawn and in the meadow. The balance goes both ways.

Their persistence interests me. Their movements are both awkward and graceful. Their ears are translucent in the early morning sunshine. I don’t mind having them around as long as they stay out of my vegetable patch, and they feed the owls and hawks, whom I also enjoy.

All along the edges…


Curious information note of the day:

According to neuroscientific studies, less than 0.1% of the information carried in the optic nerve at any given moment passes through the visual attentional gateway (“bottleneck”) after the attentional gateway recognizes a cue; the cue evidently serves as a gating mechanism to regulate the flow of image data.*

What this implies (I think) is that the bunny I manage to spot under the leafy tomato plant in my garden gets processed as “bunny” once my saccadic eye movements, taking in the huge quantity of data from a day outdoors in summer, recognizes something in the shadows that signals “rabbit?” and then filters out other, distracting data from my view.

At which point, behavioral habit kicks in and, like Mr. McGregor, I dash after Peter with a hoe.


*partial quote/paraphrase from “Dynamic Routing Strategies in Sensory, Motor and Cognitive Processing,” Van Essen, Anderson, and Olshausen 1994 MIT Press Large-Scale Neuronal Theories of the Brain, ed Koch & Davis.


On absence

I have experienced a felt absence lately, a sense of missing.

Maybe the world is too much with me. I have responses to the Stanford rape case, responses to the Syrian refugee crisis, to the US presidential campaign, to the mass murder at a gay nightclub in Orlando; responses to some personal challenges, as well–health: my own and loved ones’, among other concerns.

Responding represents the equal and opposite reaction to any action, in a Newtonian metaphor. And what my body and my mind these days are saying to me is “step back, reflect.”

Humans love immediacy–the rapid Twitter argument, the comments on opinion posts, the punch in the gut. Animals need rapid responses in order to negotiate a world of predator and prey; humans, however, (and, more than most of us realize, many other animals) also possess the ability to reflect on what the feelings are. What they may mean. How that meaning may alter our responding mechanisms. We can–if we pause to do so–put ourselves in the place of the Other, imagine different perspectives that may color our responses.

Sometimes, we may need to absent ourselves awhile. To put some distance between our feelings and the conflicts we engage in. We need feelings and we need thoughts, we need responses and we need observation from other viewpoints.


It occurs to me that poetry is the conversation between the rational, languaged mind and the mind of feeling and imagery. This effort involves the same mind at work on two or more fronts, the human brain constructed as it is to handle multiple levels of feedback, feedforward, and association.

Poetry isn’t “about emotions.” It’s an art that employs language to represent the tension between the rational and the feeling, the mind’s mighty efforts to engage with the difficult and the heart-stirring.

This is how reading about neuroscience enhances my interpretation and understanding of what poets do. I read difficult books and eschew spending time on the internet. I sit on my back porch and ponder. A buzzard swings to and fro above, gliding on the updrafts. I try to heal myself. I cannot heal the world.





Awareness, openness, & … magic mushrooms?

In a recent New Yorker article about potential medical uses for psilocybin (“The Trip Treatment”), science, culture, and food writer Michael Pollan interviewed researchers in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology. The medical potential of psychedelic drugs is not something I can comment on from reading just one article; what intrigued me most about this piece is how these drug studies overlap with studies on cognition, metacognition, consciousness, and spirituality. The medically-controlled “tripping” that volunteers have undergone overwhelmingly resulted in some form of what we term mystical or spiritual (for lack of a scientific term) feeling.

It’s almost impossible to consider these realms of experience without questioning concepts such as “soul” or “self-awareness.” Pollan writes:

Roland Griffiths is willing to consider the challenge that the mystical experience poses to the prevailing scientific paradigm. He conceded that “authenticity is a scientific question not yet answered” and that all that scientists have to go by is what people tell them about their experiences. But he pointed out that the same is true for much more familiar mental phenomena.

“What about the miracle that we are conscious? Just think about that for a second, that we are aware we’re aware!”

A man after my own heart. It is amazing, a kind of miracle. And we get consciousness and metacognition without any drug intervention at all. It just springs into our beings at some point, as we create ourselves from lived events and construct speculative worlds and an understanding (though often flawed) of other minds.

Here is another fascinating result from the psilocybin studies that may make us revise our ideas of interpersonal relationships, personhood, and creating a self. Pollan writes:

A follow-up study by Katherine MacLean, a psychologist in Griffiths’s lab, found that the psilocybin experience also had a positive and lasting effect on the personality of most participants. This is a striking result, since the conventional wisdom in psychology holds that personality is usually fixed by age thirty and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change. But more than a year after their psilocybin sessions volunteers who had had the most complete mystical experiences showed significant increases in their “openness,” one of the five domains that psychologists look at in assessing personality traits. (The others are conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.) Openness, which encompasses aesthetic appreciation, imagination, and tolerance of others’ viewpoints, is a good predictor of creativity.   [italics mine]

Openness, aesthetic appreciation, imagination, tolerance, creativity…and one researcher in neuropsychopharmacology suggests that this sort of un-boundaried openness signifies a temporary regression to an infantile state, very much as Freud hypothesized. I thought instead of Bachelard and the childhood reverie state.

Intriguing, that pharmacological work of this sort makes neuroscientists resort to citing William James and Sigmund Freud on mystical experience and the subconscious!

[Robin] Carhart-Harris believes that people suffering from other mental disorders characterized by excessively rigid patterns of thinking, such as addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder, could benefit from psychedelics, which “disrupt stereotyped patterns of thought and behavior.” In his view, all these disorders are, in a sense, ailments of the ego. He also thinks that this disruption could promote more creative thinking. It may be that some brains could benefit from a little less order.    [italics mine]

I wonder if the aesthetic experience itself, when wholly engaged, can sometimes act like a drug on the art-viewer’s or art-maker’s being. When one reads the poem that rearranges one’s world, doesn’t it disrupt stereotyped, familiar, habitual patterns of thought? That’s what happens for me when I encounter great art of any kind. It is close to mystical.




Mimesis: “Imitation, in particular. 1.1 Representation or imitation of the real world in art and literature”… “a figure of speech, whereby the words or actions of another are imitated” … “the deliberate imitation of the behavior of one group of people by another as a factor in social change” (OED).

“Nature creates similarities. One need only think of mimicry. The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man’s. His gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else. Perhaps there is none of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role.” —Walter Benjamin (“On the Mimetic Faculty,” 1933)


From time to time, I mull over mimesis and its role in human learning. Research on animal behavior since Benjamin was writing has somewhat undermined his assertion that the “highest capacity for producing similarities” belongs to human beings, but the concept remains generally accurate. What I notice among my students, however, is the human ability to perceive differences. My students much prefer to focus on what makes things different than on what makes them similar, but perhaps the reason is that similarities seem so obvious (due to our capacity for “producing similarities”) that we take them for granted. I introduce poetry to my students as an ancient art derived from exactly what, no one is certain, but likely from invocation or ritual or song or the human desire for narrative–and I tell them that it has been carried along through history by, among other compelling things, mimesis–that mimetic faculty we possess that makes us want to repeat or copy, in order to learn, to love, to pass along, to entertain, to communicate, to enjoy. We can look in the mirror and see another human’s face, or our own faces slightly changed through the process of copying another.

The mimetic urge has a long history among those people who intellectualize. Theories of Media (Univ. of Chicago: W. J. T. Mitchell) glossary offers a concise but comprehensive “mimesis” entry authored by Michele Puetz–the article in which I found the Benjamin quote above. (By the way, the Theories of Media glossary project is a great resource!) As I looked through my go-to philosophy resources, though, I was left with the distinct impression that the concept of mimesis has moved from the realm of the philosophical–Plato and Aristotle are our main thinkers on mimesis in the philosophical arena, so that’s pretty far back–and into the realms of sciences, both social and biological. Mimetic response has been researched, and speculated upon, by psychologists, cultural anthropologists, and neurologists (see the initial excitement about “mirror neurons” in this 2006 New York Times article). The term has found considerable employment in the writings of Rene Girard, whose writings span cultural anthropology, literary criticism, psychology, theology, and philosophy.

Writes Gabriel Andrade, in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“Girard believes that the great modern novelists (such as Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust and Dostoevsky) have understood human psychology better than the modern field of Psychology does. And, as a complement of his literary criticism, he has developed a psychology in which the concept of ‘mimetic desire’ is central. Inasmuch as human beings constantly seek to imitate others, and most desires are in fact borrowed from other people, Girard believes that it is crucial to study how personality relates to others.”

Clearly, human psychology and biology cannot be simplified to mere reflection and copying, but it is equally clear that the metaphor of mirroring can be fruitful as we explore the complexities of mind and consciousness, culture and art. Sometimes I take on the role of educator; and when I do so, I recognize the need for student learners to imitate, to hear information repeated, and to attempt to create their own “similarities.” Sometimes I take on the role of poet; and when I do that, I am clothed in centuries of form, rhythms, sounds, similes, stylings and borrowings and references: copies and reflections, altered through time.

Mirrored Room by Lucas Samaras

Mirrored Room by Lucas Samaras Photo: © Albright-Knox Art Gallery/CORBIS

A brief aside: When I was eight or nine years old, I went with my parents to an art museum–it may have been the Chicago Art Institute–and there was an installation of Lucas Samaras’ piece “Mirrored Room.” [See the photo at left.] I was deeply impressed by the mirrored room, partly because it was inside this artwork that I finally understood, metaphorically, the concept of infinity. I was awed by the many diminishing selves I could see, the way a single “I” could change (in size), and by the tricks of light and how easily one could get lost in such a small space.

The mirrors copied me.

Mimesis implies something active, a borrowing, a taking–a kind of theft, on the one hand, and a kind of tribute or ritual motion on the other. It is also inherently continuous. The behavior does not stop at the first copy; it is carried on, perhaps through generations, like DNA.

Here is the brilliant Anne Carson:

“[It’s] what the ancients mean by imitation. When they talk about poetry, they talk about mimesis as the action that the poem has, in reality, on the reader. Some people think that means the poet takes a snapshot of an event and on the page you have a perfect record. But I don’t think that’s right; I think a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page, and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action. And so his mind repeats that action and travels again through the action, but it is a movement of yourself through a thought, through an activity of thinking, so by the time you get to the end you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference.”


Carson describes how I feel when I’ve read a poem or novel that moves me deeply. For that matter, it is how I feel when I find a work of visual art, or a play or dance, that seems to speak with immediacy to my own sense of experience, which arouses my passion, compassion, or emotion and alters my entire psyche for awhile– “by the time you get to the end you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference.”

Sometimes I even manage to compose a poem that gives me that sense of feeling different than I was at the beginning. On those rare times, I may look at myself in the mirror and see a changed face.