On Sept. 8, 2022, BookLife reviewed Alice, the post-apocalyptic adult hippie fairy tale you’ve all been reading (or are eager to download and read today). Here’s a clip from the review:
“A whimsical, fairytale-like quality … magnetic … a storybook world [with] a flavor not often seen.”
And Northwestern University’s Jeffrey Burgdorf ran it through his nefarious artificial intelligence (AI) machine and asked it to create a cover image. Below is the actual cover (left) and the AI cover image (right). Take your pick.
Burgdorf’s AI, by the way, gave Alice “the first ever 5-star Amazon review done entirely by artificial intelligence,” though I have no idea what mysterious feelings beating in that mechanical heart motivated the encomium.
h/t Matt McManus on Noam Chomsky’s Theory of Human Nature (04/16/20), from which much of this is taken
Descartes famously argued that all our empirical knowledge may be an illusion, so it can never provide a basis for absolute certainty. By contrast, we can be certain that we are thinking (“I think, therefore I am”), and so glean some certainty about the nature of cognition.
Kant goes a step further. True, all empirical knowledge may be an illusion, but there is a universal structure to the human mind by which we all perceive the empirical world in more or less the same way. E.g., all human beings see the world in terms of space and time. And since we see the world in the same way, we can gain knowledge that would be accepted by anyone. However, this doesn’t mean we gain knowledge of the world “in itself.” Our knowledge is only of the world as it appears to those structures of the mind (what Kant calls the “phenomenal world”). The world of actual things may or may not match the phenomena we experience, but we’ll never know.
Chomsky applies this toggle from empiricism to Kant to linguistics. McManus mentions how Chomsky’s linguistic theory (beginning in the late 1950s) pushed against such behaviorists as B. F. Skinner. Skinner and the behaviorists assume, like the old empiricists, that the mind is initially a blank slate, and only learns things like language from the experience of being taught. To Chomsky, this behaviorist/empiricist approach falters if we look at language acquisition. If we accept the blank slate premise, he argued, it leads to the conclusion that if one left a rock, a tomato and a baby with a family in London each of them would be equally likely to learn English, since each of them would experience being exposed to that language. The reason that a baby can pick up a language—even several languages—very quickly is that her mind is a priori capable of learning a human dialect. This language faculty also explains why human languages have many deep similarities. Not only do we largely perceive the world in the same way, as Kant points out, but our language faculty generates universal grammars, and much of Chomsky’s linguistic theory is about unraveling those universal grammars.
As with Kant’s theory, this position implies an upside and a downside. The upside is that human beings are capable of understanding one another, and even translating their various languages between each other. The downside is that we are still operating exclusively in the phenomenal world, as our mutual understanding, including cross-cultural communication, is based on the universal structures of how our minds process the world, not on any direct experience of the world “out there.”
I will go the extra step here and align Chomsky in this way with Freud. (As my loyal readers know, I am always eager to shore up Freud’s place in the history of ideas over and against his pitiful detractors, albeit with an occasional concession to those detractors.) What Chomsky rejects in the field of linguistics, Freud rejects in the field of psychology. The behaviorists shunned Freudian psychoanalysis, shunned talking about the internal structure of the mind as if there were something in there anterior to our experience of the world. As in Chomsky the mind has an a priori structure that facilitates language acquisition, so in Freud the mind has an a priori structure that facilitates similarities in development of the psyche across human populations. Whether you see that structure in terms of primitive drives along with mechanisms that develop to inhibit those drives, or as a gradient structure moving from the conscious mind down deeper and deeper into unconscious layers of motivation, Freud’s psychology and Chomsky’s linguistics both defy the “blank slate” theory by positing some internal structure, something intrinsic about the human mind, what Kant might call subjective universals that shape how humans process the world, irrespective of the range of individual human experiences.
In neither Freud’s case nor Chomsky’s, it seems to me, does this leave us with an either/or dilemma. Chomsky’s theory might well elucidate the universal grammars that provide the a priori capacity for language acquisition without demeaning the contribution of behaviorist methods on the other side. Likewise, behaviorist psychology might well provide a stimulus-response model that works quite well as a mechanical operation for changing behaviors, but I see no reason (other than that academics must endlessly produce us vs them models and show the superiority of their side over the other as a way of securing tenure) that this should preclude psychoanalytic investigations of the internal structures of the mind that might underwrite human possibilities, human creativity, and human pathways of dysfunction more generally.
I tried to do a voice recording of my latest poem. It was tricky getting it up on WordPress, as it seems I had to make it a video, upload it to YouTube, then post the YouTube link. Let’s see how it came out. Text below.
Hero and Leander (the lamp and the water)
I still walk to that lake, the surface now still,
absence of geometry, ache of tranquility,
a voice but a whisper
soothing, sad, a silver
thorn in the side of love.
What love creates, need destroys.
We put flowers on the table
at the changing of the season.
Then the rains came. We watched
through the kitchen window.
You turned out the lamp.
“I love you more than I need you,” I said.
“Now I know what that means.”
But need, the ache, the silver thorn,
will have its bloody day.
Time passes. Seasons change.
When I walk to the lake I stir the surface,
the glitter of sun, a dangerous swell,
my hand beginning to move
into place a geometry
Thanks for posting this, Stefanie!
– ‘The Magic of Wor(l)ds’ blog is a hobby, reviews and other bookish stuff on this site are done for free. –
Today I’m not on a blogtour, but I’m sharing a guest post written by Gary Gautier, author of ‘Alice’ to promote this book.
Before I let you read it, I’ll first post some ‘basic’ information.
About the Author :
Award-winning writer Gary Gautier has taught university writing and literature and given numerous radio interviews. He has had Amazon #1 bestsellers (90-minute reads free list and metaphysical fiction free list), both poetry and fiction shortlisted for the Faulkner-Wisdom Prize, a novella selected for the Innovative Fiction Book Club, and a screen adaptation of his novel, Mr. Robert’s Bones, was selected to the second round (top 10%) at the Austin Film Festival. Gary has hitchhiked through 35 states and 16 countries and currently lives in the pueblos mágicos of…
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A couple of stories from the past 24 hours, just from my region of the USA. Who knows how many similar stories across the country are ongoing and unreported. Click for links.
Not to mention …
Hereafter, I use Neruda’s spelling, “Macchu Picchu.”
Translations part mine, part Nathanial Tarn.
Quotes identified by poem number (twelve poems in Neruda’s set).
As with other poems I’ve read by Neruda (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, plus some miscellaneous bits and pieces), The Heights of Macchu Picchu (sic) is built of concrete blocks of imagery – mostly seasonal and nature imagery but with some metals and cosmic flashes too. The images are never remote from subjective coordinates, though, whether the subjective reverberations are those of love and intimacy (as predominate in Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) or a longing for some lost primeval consciousness (as in The Heights of Macchu Picchu). In the latter case, Neruda stands close to D. H. Lawrence, the prolific English writer of both poetry and prose born one generation before Neruda. Lawrence, too, spent time immersed in the pre-Hispanic cultures of the Americas. He found both the ancient Mesoamerican and the pagan Mediterranean cultures more authentic, more fulfilling of our deepest human needs, than the anemic culture of Christianity and modernity. The longing for that lost authentic mode of being (living “breast-to-breast with the cosmos” Lawrence called it in Apocalypse) takes a theme running through many of Lawrence’s books and threads into this one by Neruda.
Beneath that shared vision, the sense of loss and the urgency of retrieval, I do see a few differences as I read The Heights of Macchu Picchu. Whether these differences point to the subjective registers of my personal response or to something objective in Neruda, you can decide, but they do help shape meaning in my reading of the poems. For one, there is a bit more native American nationalism in Neruda’s response to Macchu Picchu; he seems to feel it as a loss his people have experienced: “Ancient America, bride in the veil of sea … under the nuptial banners of light and reverence … buried America, were you in that great depth …” (X). Lawrence, for his part, seems more tuned to the loss of authentic human spirit in a more general, less nationalistic, way. But, even in Neruda, the nationalism is but a touch here and there, not a dominant idea in the set.
There is also a kind of death-wish that runs through Neruda’s collection, an element of abjection in the poet’s lament: “La poderosa Muerte me invitó muchas veces” (“powerful Death has beckoned me many times,” IV). Although Lawrence (e.g., in the non-fiction Apocalypse or Etruscan Places, or in the novel, The Plumed Serpent) laments the same loss of the primeval human spirit, the driving tone in Lawrence is a defiant celebration of what has been lost. Sure, there is a respect for the great cycles of life and death in both writers, but Neruda’s handling of death is tinged a bit more with melancholy, with a sense of personal abjection, as he feels an irresistible attraction toward “the true, the most consuming death” (VII).
In Lawrence, too, some element of abjection may be attributed to characters in The Plumed Serpent (e.g., modern Mexicans who lack the fullness of life of their pagan forebears and are thus “divided against [themselves]”), but abjection is peripheral, not in the central voice as we find in Neruda. In The Plumed Serpent (set in early 20th-century Mexico), some of the Mexican characters might be seen as working to restore that full pagan consciousness, some of the (modern) Mexican characters merely express the lost greatness of that pagan world as a form of abjection, and the European characters are too caught up in “mechanical dominance” and “mechanical connections” to get it at all, or they are just starting to perceive the big picture of spiritual loss and possible rejuvenation, but from the outside, as it were. To tentatively plot the voice of Neruda’s Macchu Picchu poems into this schema, Neruda feels the full pull of the old world view in his concrete vision of Inca life in Macchu Picchu but also feels the abjection of the modern Chilean, with a more visceral connection and more visceral sense of loss than was perhaps possible for the Englishman. In any event, the feeling you get in Neruda tacks a bit more to the personal whereas in Lawrence you feel more drawn toward the archetypal, despite the large overlap in their visions.
One other difference worth mentioning may be related to Neruda as a craftsman of poetry. If Poem VIII imagines the ancient pagan consciousness, as Lawrence might do, as “a long-dead kingdom” that paradoxically, dormantly “still lives on” but at a depth we cannot see (“El reino muerto vive todavia”), in Poem IX, the structure of the poem itself seems to suddenly emulate the pagan consciousness:
Aguila sideral, viña de bruma. Interstellar Eagle, vine-in-a-mist
Bastión perdido, cimitarra ciega. Forsaken bastion, blind scimitar.
Cinturón estrellado, pan solemne. Orion belt, ceremonial bread.
Escala torrencial, párpado inmenso. Torrential stairway, immeasurable eyelid.
Túnica triangular, polen de Piedra. Triangular tunic, pollen of stone.
Consciousness here takes the form of concrete images, discrete, without all the rational connectors that Neruda (and Lawrence) might associate with modern consciousness. The flow is not one of a causal nexus but of a throbbing heartbeat, uncluttered by the need to reduce everything to rational sequences.
Rejuvenating that primeval heartbeat remains a central theme beyond the structural experiment of Poem IX:
“Through a confusion of splendor,
through a night made of stone let me plunge my hand
and move to beat in me a bird held for a thousand years,
the old and unremembered human heart!” (XI)
And on to Neruda’s invocation in Poem XII, and back to an attitude he fully shares with Lawrence:
“Look at me from the depths of the earth
. . .
bring to the cup of this new life
your ancient buried sorrows.
Show me your blood and your furrow
Strike the old flints
Speak through my speech, and through my blood.”
The opposite of oneness is categories. The human mind sorts the chaotic flux of reality into categories to render it intelligible. But pull out the dividers that sort the categories and what you have is oneness, or rather one continuous cosmic gradient. (In my experience, psychedelics like LSD and mushrooms are one way of pulling out the dividers but not the only way.)
Before Freud, there was faculty psychology. The human psyche was composed of faculties: passion, reason, appetite, etc. – like separate boxes on a shelf. Freud (not alone but he’s the one that pulled it together) switched out this category-based model for something more fluid and dynamic – a gradient moving from the conscious mind down deeper and deeper into unconscious drives and mechanisms that exert enormous though unseen influences on our behavior. Though dismissing Freud is something of an international pastime these days, I think his model of the psyche, where old and unconscious impressions continue to affect behaviors later in life, was a remarkable paradigm shift that shaped the direction of psychology. It is still perhaps the prevailing model today, and indeed Freud’s detractors often use Freud’s depth psychology model in waging their attacks. Feel free to demur in the comments.
Or how about the four sheaths in Vedantic philosophies: physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual. They seem like four separate categories but isn’t it more intuitive to see them as part of one rainbow continuum? Think of the emotional and physical registers during sex. Surely they are part of one gradient of response and not separate categories, unless we deliberately separate them for the purpose of analysis.
Or how about space and time. They were generally considered two separate categories – either objective categories defining physical reality or subjective categories, as in Kant, by which we organize our experience of reality. But categories. Then Einstein. It turns out space and time are not categorically separate but are part of the same continuum. Same with energy and matter in Einstein. No longer separate categories but part of the same continuum. E = mc2.
There are probably a million other instances in the history of ideas, but the point is that categories help us sort, evaluate, and make sense of things, but the categories are not the things. In fact, there are no things. Just the one big cosmic Thing. The kaleidoscope of cosmic oneness, which is of course the same thing as the kaleidoscope of cosmic consciousness. The objective world and the subjective world fold into each other at the cosmic level. There is no other way. You don’t need LSD see your way through to this vision. Well, in my case maybe that LSD trip to a remote Mexican beach helped just a little, but that was almost an accident. Almost an accident. Maybe that’s the window to the next level of discussion 😊
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