Literature, it fails us now

Dale Peck body-slams cheap, decayed postmodernism:

…But as I puzzled my way through this and the rest of Moody’s books, I found myself looking not for the place in their execution or conception where they went wrong, but rather for something even prior and more primary: the wrong turn in our culture that led to Moody’s status as one of the anointed ones of his — okay, our — generation. In my view, the wrong turn starts around the time Stephen Dedalus goes to college in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and echoes all the way through Don DeLillo’s ponderously self-important rendering of Bobby Thompson’s shot heard round the world in the opening chapter of Underworld. Moody’s badness is a little less inexplicable if you look at him as the lowest common denominator of a generation of writers — and readers: they, too, bear some responsibility for the condition of fiction — who have long since forgotten what the modernist and postmodernist assaults on linearity were actually about, and as such have lost the ability to tell the difference between ambiguity and inscrutability, ambition and bombast; of writers who are taken at face value when they are being ironic and who are deemed ironic when they are telling it straight — assuming, of course, that they themselves know the difference. Assuming, I should add, that they actually have a subject.

He’s right even about writers I like.

Reverse engineer your brain

More than 40 years ago, my father wrote a short story called “Dr. Pettigott’s Face.” The eponymous doctor of the story has a theory that pushing the face into happy expressions will make people happy, and has constructed a machine to do this. I remember that for years he had a correspondence with some neuro researcher who was interested in facial expressions because the guy liked the story so much. The title has been a shorthand in our family for people trying to reverse engineer things in weird ways.

The polyvagal theory and some of its implications suggest that there may be a grain of truth in this. The connections between emotion and facial expression are very tight and it’s possible that it “goes both ways”. This story from the LA Times on Sunday is fascinating:

botox for a better brain?

Fiction Bits

Separate from the brain filter, I’m making a fiction filter.

I’m going to post some fiction stuff. For now it’s just short-shorts and character development/dialogue crap for a long-term project. If you’re interested in seeing that stuff, comment here (screened).

Okay, this one has potential.

Ganked from vanmojo, the first “LJ tagmeme” thing I’ve seen in ages that looks fun:

If you read this, if your eyes are passing over this right now, (even if we don’t speak often) please post a comment with a COMPLETELY MADE UP AND FICTIONAL memory of you and me. It can be anything you want – good or bad – BUT IT HAS TO BE FAKE.

When you’re finished, post this little paragraph on your blog and be surprised (or mortified) about what people DON’T ACTUALLY remember about you.

I repost this a couple of times a year.

Partly because it’s amusing, and partly because it sums up my feelings about impending doom of all kinds, from personal death to universal apocalypse. The topic of “we’re all screwed, and what’s to do?” has come up a lot lately. So here’s R.L. Stevenson, as quoted in Blyth’s Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, once again.

THE SINKING SHIP

By Robert Louis Stevenson, from Fables II

“SIR,” said the first lieutenant, bursting into the Captain’s cabin, “the ship is going down.”

“Very well, Mr. Spoker,” said the Captain; “but that is no reason for going about half-shaved. Exercise your mind a moment, Mr. Spoker, and you will see that to the philosophic eye there is nothing new in our position: the ship (if she is to go down at all) may be said to have been going down since she was launched.”

“She is settling fast,” said the first lieutenant, as he returned from shaving.

“Fast, Mr. Spoker?” asked the Captain. “The expression is a strange one, for time (if you will think of it) is only relative.”

“Sir,” said the lieutenant, “I think it is scarcely worth while to embark in such a discussion when we shall all be in Davy Jones’s Locker in ten minutes.”

“By parity of reasoning,” returned the Captain gently, “it would never be worth while to begin any inquiry of importance; the odds are always overwhelming that we must die before we shall have brought it to an end. You have not considered, Mr. Spoker, the situation of man,” said the Captain, smiling, and shaking his head.

“I am much more engaged in considering the position of the ship,” said Mr. Spoker.

“Spoken like a good officer,” replied the Captain, laying his hand on the lieutenant’s shoulder.

On deck they found the men had broken into the spirit-room, and were fast getting drunk.

“My men,” said the Captain, “there is no sense in this. The ship is going down, you will tell me, in ten minutes: well, and what then? To the philosophic eye, there is nothing new in our position. All our lives long, we may have been about to break a blood-vessel or to be struck by lightning, not merely in ten minutes, but in ten seconds; and that has not prevented us from eating dinner, no, nor from putting money in the Savings Bank. I assure you, with my hand on my heart, I fail to comprehend your attitude.”

The men were already too far gone to pay much heed.

“This is a very painful sight, Mr. Spoker,” said the Captain.

“And yet to the philosophic eye, or whatever it is,” replied the first lieutenant, “they may be said to have been getting drunk since they came aboard.”

“I do not know if you always follow my thought, Mr. Spoker,” returned the Captain gently. “But let us proceed.”

In the powder magazine they found an old salt smoking his pipe.

“Good God,” cried the Captain, “what are you about?”

“Well, sir,” said the old salt, apologetically, “they told me as she were going down.”

“And suppose she were?” said the Captain. “To the philosophic eye, there would be nothing new in our position. Life, my old shipmate, life, at any moment and in any view, is as dangerous as a sinking ship; and yet it is man’s handsome fashion to carry umbrellas, to wear indiarubber over-shoes, to begin vast works, and to conduct himself in every way as if he might hope to be eternal. And for my own poor part I should despise the man who, even on board a sinking ship, should omit to take a pill or to wind up his watch. That, my friend, would not be the human attitude.”

“I beg pardon, sir,” said Mr. Spoker. “But what is precisely the difference between shaving in a sinking ship and smoking in a powder magazine?”

“Or doing anything at all in any conceivable circumstances?” cried the Captain. “Perfectly conclusive; give me a cigar!”

Two minutes afterwards the ship blew up with a glorious detonation.

The Airborne Toxic Event

The enormous dark mass moved like some death ship in a Norse legend, escorted across the night by armored creatures with spiral wings. We weren’t sure how to react. It was a terrible thing to see, so close, so low, packed with chlorides, benzenes, phenols, hydrocarbons, or whatever the precise toxic content. But it was also spectacular, part of the grandness of a sweeping event, like the vivid scene in the switching yard or the people trudging across the snowy overpass with children, food, belongings, a tragic army of the dispossessed. Our fear was accompanied by a sense of awe that bordered on the religious…

{…}

It was said that the governor was on his way from the capital in an executive helicopter. It would probably set down in a bean field outside a deserted town, allowing the governor to emerge, square-jawed and confident, in a bush jacket, within camera range, for ten or fifteen seconds, as a demonstration of his imperishability…

from White Noise, by Don DeLillo.