On The Alleged Undesirability of Inconsistency

Inconsistency in our beliefs–and thus actions–is often held to be not just a cognitive failure, a breakdown of rationality, but also a moral failure of sorts. Sometimes the inconsistent are accused of hypocrisy, of disingenuousness. We are urged to forensically examine their utterances and actions, sifting through the traces they leave, all the better to indict them of a catalog of epistemic and ethical sins. The expression of an inconsistency is also often taken to be a cover-up for a truly held belief, a masking of a sordid reality; there are the things we ‘really believe’ and then there are the things we only pretend to believe.

Perhaps we should be more tolerant of the inconsistent–especially as most of us, if not all, are guilty of it.

There is a simple apologia we can offer for this widespread inconsistency; we are creatures of limited reasoning power; we may find it too cognitively expensive to check our enterprise for consistency. We often satisfice, rather than optimize, the sanitation and hygiene we impose on our beliefs.

But there might be something even more fundamental at play. The accusations leveled against the inconsistent often presume there is a genuine, authentic self, one covered up and disguised by incompetency, for nefarious purposes. They suggest we are whole and are fractured by this tolerance of rupture within our corpus of belief. But perhaps–as many have suggested before me–we are a shifting conglomerate of sorts. We play host to many selves, many drives, many desires, all at once; if these drives and desires and instincts may conflict with each other, then why not our beliefs? Beliefs are revealed by actions, by visible exertion and the spoken word; these issue from our inner being, each bearing the impress of the turbulence that gave rise to it. Unsurprisingly, the agent who has been assigned their ownership appears singed by incoherence at the edges. But this incoherence may instead be a pleasurable medley of a kind.

I do not think there is much, if any, novelty in what I have noted above. But consistency continues to hold sway as an epistemic and moral ideal. It is still put down as a signpost, as a marker, for our aspirations. We are urged–when we have the time and the energy–to look closely and carefully under and around ourselves, and to conduct search-and-destroy missions for all and any inconsistencies.

We are too harsh on the inconsistent. In a fit of self-righteous rectitude, we indict them of too much. To be sure, some inconsistencies are harmful; for ourselves, for those impacted by our actions. The inconsistency of the powerful hypocrite is a particularly damaging one. But all too many variants of this supposedly deadly sin are not. At worst, they may only puzzle and perplex us, impatient as we are to categorize, all too neatly, our friends and family and acquaintances. But we should be more tolerant, and treat these visible faults in action and belief as spurs to a more sympathetic investigation of the human condition and the complexity of the inner life.

V. S. Naipaul on Diversion and Inspiration

In “The Author’s Note”, a preface of sorts to The Return of Eva Peron with The Killings in Trinidad (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1980), V. S. Naipaul writes,

These pieces…were written between 1972 and 1975. They bridged a creative gap: from the end of 1970 to the end of 1973 no novel offered itself to me. That perhaps explains the intensity of some of the pieces and their obsessional nature….I can claim no further unity for the pieces; though it should be said that, out of these journeys and writings, novels did in the end come to me.

This little passage contains, within it, several interesting observations on the writing process.

First, Naipaul notes that for a period of three years no ideas for a novel ‘came’ to him (or if they did, they were not fecund enough to be sustained for too long.) By phrasing his description of this state as one in which “no novel offered itself to me” Naipaul reiterates the quasi-mystical notion of a written work as presenting itself to its writer as an offering, one now to be taken on and brought forth. Here I am; make of me what you will. The writer appears as a conduit for the passage–into the reader’s world–of a written work. Naipaul’s further remarks make clear that while this initial stage of writing might seem otherworldly, what follows is most decidedly grounded in the concrete–in the very substantial acts of writing itself.

Second, even though no idea for a novel-length project came to fruition, the writer still has his writerly energies within and about him; they seek expression in the only way he knows how. So the writer writes; in this case, essays and reportage. The writer must write; something, anything. If not fiction, then something else. The novelist, thwarted, now seeks release in essays, which now bear the marks of having functioned as receptacles for his charged outpourings. Naipaul thus points us toward the notion of the writer as driven by energies that need discharging. (Failure to do so–in the right way, or at all–might account for some of the misery that writers seem to constantly experience.)

Third, the process of writing, the work of putting words to paper (or screen), now makes possible that which previously was not: the bringing forth of a novel. As the late Roger Ebert once noted, ‘The muse only visits while you work.” Here too, Naipaul confirms for us the wisdom of that observation. If inspiration for a novel is not forthcoming, then perhaps it might be facilitated by the writer’s best trick: writing. The very act of writing is the spur which brings forth the hitherto missing spark.

We may thus extract advice for the writer: You will often find yourself not able to write; inspiration will be felt lacking; at those moments commit to writing something, anything, even if not what you would have originally wanted to write; out of this seeming diversion, you might yet find a way back to the path you had originally wanted to set out on.

The Difficulty of the Memoir

As my About page indicates, I am currently working on “a memoirish examination of the politics of cricket fandom” (contracted to Temple University Press, for the series Sporting, edited by Amy Bass).  Writing it has proven harder than I thought.

I began writing the book late in 2001 and had a hundred-thousand word draft ready late in 2004. I wrote with little guile, wanting to get my memories committed to paper, organizing in them nothing more sophisticated than a simple linear narrative. First this happened, then this, and so on. I organized the material in the only way I knew: by chunking it into simple temporal segments. I gave the draft to a couple of readers, and then forgot about it because I had other writing projects at hand.

Five years later, I submitted my draft to a couple of trade publishers.  One sent me a rejection, the other never replied. I then sent it to an editor recommended me by an acquaintance, and she rejected it too. I then sat on the book for another couple of years before making contact with Amy and sending it to her. She liked the project, and after a full review process at the press, I signed a contract.

And then I returned to work on a nine-year old draft. Unsurprisingly, I found a great deal of material I did not like. More importantly, I soon ran into a greater difficulty: it is hard to tell a coherent story about yourself – especially for public consumption.

We are the central characters of our lives. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are subject to constant, ongoing revision; we are good at forgetting, suppressing, and embellishing the little details that make it up.  (By our actions and our pronouncements we are also spinning one version of this story for everyone else.) This closeness of the narrative and its constantly shifting nature means that writing about it was always going to be challenging.

And how. I frequently find myself quite puzzled by the character in the story I am writing. I don’t fully understand him and would like to make him more comprehensible. But doing so, perhaps by greater confessional revelation or forensic detail, is not as straightforward as it seems. We have forgotten a great deal, and we often remember incorrectly. And sometimes, in an attempt to make more palatable the unvarnished truth, we might introduce incoherence elsewhere in the narrative structure–there is a thread that binds, and it can snap if stressed too much.  It is all too easy to second-guess oneself: What do I really need to tell the reader? Was this a good idea to begin with? We might construct a too-sanitized picture of ourselves, suddenly struck by timidity at the thought of exposure. Lastly, we sometimes sense that we have layers and layers of complex detail that need unpacking; a really coherent story about ourselves, one that we often take hundreds of hours to recount in a therapist’s office, might simply be too much for the written page; writing it sounds like a lifetime’s labors. And it would be tedious in any case, of little interest to anyone but ourselves.

I am not yet close to solving these challenges; I expect write that dreaded email asking for an extension–beyond the summer, to the end of the year–all too soon.

Isaac Bashevis Singer on A Rabbi’s Crisis

In Isaac Bashevis Singer‘s “I Place My Reliance on No Man” (collected with other short stories in Short Friday) Rabbi Jonathan Danziger goes to pray in his synagogue one Monday morning. As he prays, he encounters a crisis:

When the rabbi came to the words, ‘I place my reliance on no man,’ he stopped. The words stuck in his throat.

For the first time he realized that he was lying. No one relied on people more than he. The whole town gave him orders, he depended on everyone. Anyone could do him harm. Today it happened in Yampol, tomorrow it would happen in Yavrov. He, the rabbi, was slave to every powerful man in the community. He must hope for gifts, for favors, and must always seek supporters. The rabbi began to examine the other worshippers. Not one of them needed allies. No one else worried about who might be for or against him.  No one cared a penny for the tales of rumormongers. ‘Then what’s the use of lying?’ the rabbi thought. ‘Whom am I cheating? The Almighty?’ The rabbi shuddered and covered his face in shame….Suddenly, something inside the rabbi laughed. he lifted his hand as if swearing an oath. A long-forgotten joy came over him, and he felt an unexpected determination. In one moment everything became clear to him…

Rabbi Jonathan Danziger then asks one of the congregants, Shloime Meyer, if he can work for him, picking fruits in his orchard. He will no longer serve as rabbi. His mind is made up. That life is behind him.

As the story ends, the rabbi wonders:

Why did you wait for so long? Couldn’t you see from the start that one cannot serve God and man at the same time?

Danziger might have imagined that as rabbi he would spend his days studying the scriptures, engaging in learned debates about their interpretations, dispensing sage advice to the perplexed, and being respected and admired for his great learning and moral rectitude. Instead, his certifications met with disfavor and disapproval, and his parishioners found a veritable litany of complaints to level against him. He might have contemplated a life spent in contemplation of the sacred, but instead he found himself immersed in the profane.

Rabbi Danziger’s resolution of his crisis is perhaps novel, but his crisis is not. He has come to realize like all too many of us, that our exalted visions of our work and our life, are sadly incongruent with the actual lived reality of our lives. (The What People Think I Do/What I Really Do meme often captures this quite well.) Our levels of awareness about this fact can vary. Some rabbis might be just as immersed as Danziger in the all too worldly goings on about them, but might disregard this evidence in favor of holding to their preconceived notions of their imagined life. Such illusions might be desirable too. The mundane realities of life sometimes require, as a palliative of sorts, some elaborate storytelling about what we have let ourselves in for.  But only if they do not create the kind the painful dissonance that finally forced Danziger to put down the holy scrolls and head for the orchards. The maintenance and sustenance of that inner discord can be more damaging than the price paid for a life left behind. In those cases, it might be better to seek the kind of reconceived life that Danziger sought.

Christopher Hitchens: Pro-War, Anti-Death Penalty

A few days ago, Corey Robin wondered on his Facebook status:

Something I never understood about Christopher Hitchens: how such a fervent opponent of the death penalty could be such an avid supporter of war.

Supporters of the death penalty, of course, are notoriously fond of war (they also tend to be ‘pro-life’ in the debate on abortion). But why would a ‘fervent’ opponent of state-sanctioned murder be an ‘avid’ supporter or war, another form, one might say, of state-sanctioned murder?

The answer may, I think, be found in the kind of fascination war exerted over Hitchens. He did not think of it as merely an instrument of politics, one wielded to bring about very specific political objectives. Rather, it held him in a kind of aesthetically inflected thrall: he found it beautiful, stirring, exciting.  Many, like Hitchens, are entranced by the beautiful images that war furnishes for our imagination; evidence for this claim can be found in the large number of coffee-table books that purport to be illustrated histories of war. These images need not be just those of exploding munitions and ruined buildings; war utilizes weaponry and men, and photographic and artistic depictions of these, utilized and engaged in combat (or waiting to be) are among our most iconic representations. Gleaming aircraft, sleek, water-plowing  battleships, smoothly recoiling guns, men (and now women) in svelte uniforms, buttoned up, hard and unforgiving. It’s hard to resist the appeal of these. War provides many visual horrors, of course, but these are all too often swamped by the aforementioned cavalcade.  (I’m leaving aside for now, the enduring place that war holds in our imagination as a zone for the establishment of masculine credentials and brotherhood.)

The death penalty, in sharp and instructive contrast, is almost uniformly grubby and sordid. It is underwritten by retribution, an ignoble business at best; it is wrapped up in tedious layers of penal codes, legal wrangling, and procedural disputes; it happens quietly and grimly, away from the public eye, the punishment that dare not  speak its name. All associated with it are diminished; the condemned have lost their human dignity well before they ascend the gallows, the jailers and clergymen and executioners appear merely as bureaucratic functionaries, executing–no pun intended–with nary a trace of flair or style, the bookish orders laid out in the court document sanctioning the killing. There is no glamour, no sheen, no gleaming edges in the death penalty. It is dull, dull, dull. Especially in this guillotine-free age.

If the death penalty could have been lifted, somehow, out of the unappealing morass of state bureaucracy, judicial procedure, and clumsy modes of execution, if it could somehow have brought with it some of the frisson that war provides, then I do not doubt that Hitchens would have been all for it.

Note: One should also not forget that Hitchens considered himself a contrarian. Perhaps his opposition to the death penalty was formed at a time when public support for it ran high; his support of the Iraq War was probably viewed by him as a gleeful flipping of the bird to his former mates on the Left.

Freedom in the Absence of Social Convention

In reviewing Arturo Fontaine‘s La Vida Doble, “a harrowing examination of violence during the Pinochet period,” whose heroine is Lorena, “a female terrorist who is tortured, changes sides, and becomes a torturer herself”, David Gallagher writes:

But why in fact do good fathers and meek husbands and generous lovers undertake such cruel torture? Here Lorena sees the torturer as someone who becomes isolated from any sort of moral standard while granted absolute impunity for what he does, no matter how vile. In the glib manner of a French student of the Sixties, she speculates about two opposing views of what happens when social conventions have no effect. One is that you recover the innocence of the noble savage. The other—the relevant one in this case—is that you revert to a state of primal savagery. Because there are no limits, she tells the “novelist,” an inner monster springs to life, one we all potentially harbor. Once there is no possibility of punishment, “the monster we carry within us, the beast that grows fat on human flesh, is unleashed within the good father or the daughter of a good family.”

Notice that Lorena establishes a dichotomy–there are only two possible modes of behavior possible when social conventions cease to constrain us. But we might speculate too–perhaps for the benefit of a future novelist–that the absence of social conventions might result in a new kind of freedom, one in which, rather than revert to the two states described above, human beings experiment with finding new orderings of moral and ethical values. Certainly, it isn’t clear why these “two opposing views” are the only possibilities open to human beings, why our options in the face of the absence of social conventions would be so limited.

The “two opposing views” that Gallagher refers to are influential, of course, but that might be due to a lack of imagination on the part of those speculating about a convention-free world. In the absence of convention it would also seem just as likely that rather than being innocent savages or beasts, we might merely be utterly confused and bereft, content to experiment with modes of behavior and interaction that might provide some guidance for how to proceed in this newly ordered world.

The “lack of imagination” I refer to above, is an almost inevitable consequence, of course, of a deeply essentialist view of human nature, one committed to the idea that the visible human persona consists of two layers: an abiding, enduring, inner self temporarily covered by a thin epidermis of social convention. But a more existential view would suggest that when social conventions are removed, we have no way of saying what will remain. Perhaps the new being that will emerge will delight in alternating between innocence and bestiality, perhaps it will develop ever more complex characteristics, perhaps it will grow in dimensions–moral, psychological, and emotional–that we cannot yet fathom, gripped as we are by conventional modes of thought. When we think of how constraining social conventions–fundamentally and broadly understood–are, such speculation should not strike us too outlandish.

Making the Abstract Concrete

A few weeks ago, I posted the following quip as my Facebook status:

You don’t really get _Civilization and its Discontents_ till you bring up a child.

And then, a week or so later:

Apropos of my recent comment that you don’t really get _Civilization and its Discontents_ till you raise a child: I don’t think you really get Quine’s inscrutability of reference thesis till you start to shepherd a child through the early language acquisition phase.

There is a more general point to be made here, of course: that seemingly abstract academic theories spring sharply into focus when they are viewed through the lens of personal, emotionally tinged experiences. And child-rearing is perfectly designed provide visceral contact with their truths.

Consider then, my first example above. The child’s first contacts with the civilization that is its host come via it parents, those responsible for not just feeding, bathing, clothing, and otherwise protecting it, but also, all too soon, for inculcating it into the ways of the world. It has to be warned–in an appropriately modified tone of voice–not to bite and scratch,  or harm itself; it has to be restrained–again, sometimes for its own safety, sometimes for that of others; it has to be corrected in countless ways from proceeding along its own path, and guided into trajectories more amenable to those deemed more appropriate for its development. And so as I noted:

Sometimes I’m saddened terribly; something wild and primeval is being constantly tamed, molded, channeled, impressed on. Too essentialist, I know, and not existential enough, but still….

This channeling, this impressing, continues as the child comes into contact  with others besides parents, of course, but it is the parent who has most proximal contact with the changes wrought in the child, and is thus most likely to be affected in turn by them.  The changes in one’s child can produce some melancholy as we realize the coming to be be, and passing away, of different identities; while we happily welcome the growing child into the community of language speakers and concept-wielders, we might regret too, just for a bit, the absence of the babyish bundle, all coo and gurgle, that was once ours to hold tight and close.

And then again, as a friend of mine noted in response to the last quote above:

Yeah, but I’m glad they stop smearing their feces on the wall.