Virginia Woolf On Autobiography And Not Writing ‘Directly About The Soul’

In Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature, (New York Review of Books, 13 August, 2015), Joyce Carol Oates writes:

[Virginia] Woolf suggests the power of a different sort of inspiration, the sheerly autobiographical—the work created out of intimacy with one’s own life and experience….What is required, beyond memory, is a perspective on one’s own past that is both a child’s and an adult’s, constituting an entirely new perspective. So the writer of autobiographical fiction is a time traveler in his or her life and the writing is often, as Woolf noted, “fertile” and “fluent”:

I am now writing as fast & freely as I have written in the whole of my life; more so—20 times more so—than any novel yet. I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; & that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there…. The truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes: but look [elsewhere] & the soul slips in. [link added above]

I will freely confess to being obsessed by autobiography and memoir. Three planned book projects of mine, each in varying stages of early drafting and note-taking, are autobiographical, even as I can see more similar ventures in the offing; another book, Shapeshifter: The Evolution of a Cricket Fan, currently contracted to Temple University Press, is a memoir; yet another book Eye on Cricket, has many autobiographical passages; and of course, I often write quasi-autobiographical, memoirish posts on this blog all the time. In many ways, my reasons for finding myself most comfortable in this genre echo those of Woolf’s: I find my writing within its confines to be at its most ‘fertile’ and ‘fluent’–if at all, it ever approaches those marks; I write ‘fast’ and ‘freely’ when I write about recollections and lessons learned therein; I find that combining my past sensations and memories with present and accumulated judgments and experiences results in a fascinating, more-than-stereoscopic perspective that I often find to be genuinely illuminating and revealing. (Writing memoirs is tricky business, as all who write them know. No man is an island and all that, and so our memoirs implicate the lives of others as they must; those lives might not appreciate their inclusion in our imperfect, incomplete, slanted, agenda-driven, literary recounting of them. Still, it is a risk many are willing to take.)

Most importantly, writing here, or elsewhere, on autobiographical subjects creates a ‘couch’ and a ‘clinic’ of sorts; I am the patient and I am the therapist; as I write, the therapeutic recounting and analysis and story-retelling kicks off; the end of a writing session has at its best moments, brought with it moments of clarity and insight about myself to the most important of quarters: moi. More than anything else, this therapeutic function of autobiographical writing confirms yet another of Woolf’s claims: that “one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” Sometimes, one must look at the blank page, and hope to find the soul take shape there instead.


Parenting As Philosophizing

My daughter turned five a little over two weeks ago. Like most ‘new’ parents, my wife and I duly made expressions of surprise at how fast these five years had rolled away: long days, short years, and all the while, a rapidly transforming human being and person to marvel at. My daughter has changed physically and psychologically; her metamorphosis in this half-decade has provided adequate basis for the claim that personal identity is a mystery, a chimera to only be helplessly grasped at; her physical appearance and dress, which still provokes many to ‘misidentify’ her as a boy, speaks eloquently to how we may construct gender through minor changes in external presentation. Her verbal capacities have grown, and so a steady stream of pronouncements that amuse, perplex, delight, and confound us, issue forth on a daily basis; she has elementary reading and writing skills, and is thus pointing in the direction of a whole new world that she will begin to explore this year. There is much here to wonder at, clearly.

She’s not the only one changing though. My daughter has been changing me even as she does. These changes cannot be captured by the usual ‘look at all the gray hair I have now’ proclamations; many of them are merely tiny moments of astonishment at oneself, at coming to face with a capacity or incapacity or cruelty or kindness not hitherto noticed; yet others are quieter, slower transformations into a newer way of understanding my place in this world now that so many of my older priorities, anxieties, and urgencies have been reconfigured. Some are made sharper and more demanding and insistent; yet others have been quietly relegated to obscurity and irrelevance. Some anxieties about unrealized professional ambitions have eased; I have found new objectives in parenting to draw me onwards and upwards. I have stopped cursing the lack of time for reading and writing; I have learned to recognize that I read and write differently–and often, better–now because of the presence of my daughter in my life; this is a blessing not to be discounted. (Needless to say, reading Freud as a parent is a novelty all its own.)

My daughter is, most crucially, making my philosophizing an actual lived activity; in bringing up my daughter, I have had a chance to see philosophical doctrines that I have only theorized about previously spring to life; I understand them anew as a result.  Indeed, the truth of some is only ‘conclusively’ established in the laboratory of parenthood; the child is where all too many philosophical theories come to grief. My many political standpoints are informed by my role as a parent, as are my ethical ones. I find occasion to wonder, all over again, about the central existential issues that drew me to philosophy in the first place, and notice that my deliberations are marked by an acknowledgement of the meaning and value that my daughter has already brought to my life. I see things differently now; I’m a different kind of philosopher, interested in directions and possibilities I had not considered before, possessed of a voice and imagination that seems new to me; I thank my daughter for making me so.

The Fragile Digital World Described By Zeynep Tufkeci Invites Smashing

In “The Looming Digital Meltdown” (New York Times, January 7th), Zeynep Tufekci writes,

We have built the digital world too rapidly. It was constructed layer upon layer, and many of the early layers were never meant to guard so many valuable things: our personal correspondence, our finances, the very infrastructure of our lives. Design shortcuts and other techniques for optimization — in particular, sacrificing security for speed or memory space — may have made sense when computers played a relatively small role in our lives. But those early layers are now emerging as enormous liabilities. The vulnerabilities announced last week have been around for decades, perhaps lurking unnoticed by anyone or perhaps long exploited.

This digital world is intertwined with, works for, and is  used by, an increasingly problematic social, economic, and political post-colonial and post-imperial world, one riven by political crisis and  economic inequality, playing host to an increasingly desperate polity sustained and driven, all too often, by a rage and anger grounded in humiliation and shame. Within this world, all too many have had their noses rubbed in the dirt of their colonial and subjugated pasts, reminded again and again and again of how they are backward and poor and dispossessed and shameful, of how they need to play ‘catch  up,’ to show that they are ‘modern’ and ‘advanced’ and ‘developed’ in all the right ways.  The technology of the digital world has always been understood as the golden road to the future; it is what will make the journey to the land of the developed possible. Bridge the technological gap; all will be well. This digital world also brought with it the arms of the new age: the viruses, the trojan horses, the malwares, the new weapons promising to reduce the gaping disparity between the rich and the poor, between North and South, between East and West–when it comes to the size of their conventional and nuclear arsenals, a disparity that allows certain countries to bomb yet others with impunity, from close, or from afar. The ‘backward world,’ the ‘poor’, the ‘developing countries’ have understood that besides nuclear weapons, digital weapons can also keep them safe, by threatening to bring the digital worlds of their opponents to their knee–perhaps the malware that knocks out a reactor, or a city’s electric supply, or something else.

The marriage of a nihilistic anger with the technical nous of the digital weapon maker and the security vulnerabilities of the digital world is a recipe for disaster. This world, this glittering world, its riches all dressed up and packaged and placed out of reach, invites resentful assault. The digital world, its basket in which it has placed all its eggs, invites smashing; and a nihilistic hacker might just be the person to do it. An arsenal of drones and cruise missiles and ICBMS will not be of much defense against the insidious Trojan Horse, artfully placed to do the most damage to a digital installation. Self-serving security experts, all hungering for the highly-paid consulting gig, have long talked up this threat; but their greed does not make the threat any less real.

Keep Your Child Safe: Direct Them To Women If Lost

In Protecting The Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane) Gavin De Becker writes of the safety rule–for children–described as ‘If you are ever lost, go to a policeman”:

Here’s another popular rule that rarely enhances safety….All identifying credentials…are above the waist….A young child cannot tell the difference between a police officer and a security guard….I don’t believe in teaching inflexible rules because it’s not possible to know they’ll apply in all situations. There is one, however, that reliably enhances safety. Teach children that if they are ever lost, Go to a woman.

Why? First, if your child selects a woman, it’s highly unlikely that the woman will be a sexual predator….Next…a woman approached by a lost child asking for help is likely to stop whatever she is doing, commit to that child, and not rest until the child is safe….The fact is that men in all cultures and at all ages and at all times in history are more violent than women.

This is a pretty damning piece of advice, resting on an equally damning evidentiary foundation. Think about it: when giving advice to your child on how to look for help when they are lost, you don’t need to specify–in your directive to your child that they approach a woman for help–a policewoman, an older woman, a younger woman, a black woman, a white woman. Any of these will be, on the odds, safer than any man you could specify as a type. Look for a woman; you will be guaranteed that you will find a ‘safer human being’ than a man. An escaped female convict or criminal of some kind might be more dangerous than many men, but the relevant odds still make it the case that the advice under consideration retains its rationality. Look for a woman, and you are at least partially on your way to safety. There are no guarantees, of course. Women rob, rape, and kill too; but we act on the basis of probabilities and the probability is that your child–if helplessly looking for succor–will be safer with a woman than with a man.

I’m not sure how men, as a gender, can, need, or should respond to this kind of claim; it isn’t clear to me what form such a response could take. Still, at the least, this should induce some kind of reckoning–men have, through their actions over the years, made themselves into the more dangerous gender. I read the passage above as a parent, and I did not hesitate to internalize its advice and transmit it to my daughter. She knows, that if she is ever lost, she should go looking for someone that looks ‘like a mommy.’ That was the only specificity we could add to the advice and we qualified it with ‘if you don’t find a mommy, find a girl.’ We still did not tell her to approach a man, and the fact is, we won’t. It’s just too dangerous to tell my child to ever trust any kind of male stranger; even if she is lost. She should hold out for a woman.

The Ones That ‘Get Away’

Every year, every semester, there they are: the barely visible, the unobtrusive, the ones who hardly register, who barely leave a trace.  There they are, every semester, filing into my classroom, sometimes staking out corner positions, sometimes not. (Sometimes they will attend, sometimes not.) They will not speak, they will show varying amounts of interest in classroom proceedings; they seem curiously bemused by, detached from, all that seems to be taking place around them. I try to reach out, sometimes with carrot, sometimes with stick. My success rates remain mixed. Every semester, some students come and go, and as finals and grading come and go too, I realize we could both say about each other, “I hardly knew ye.”

I do not think these students are just slackers or anything like that. Many, I’m sure, are introverted, shy, withdrawn, reluctant to speak up in a room full of strangers and a person of authority and risk their silent ridicule; yet others are victims of a bureaucratic arrangement which ensures that they have registered for a class because it was: a) an onerous degree requirement whose rationale they do not understand; b) an eligible elective that worked with their work-and-personal-and academic schedule. Whatever the reason, the student in question is present, and yet not.

Every semester, some measure of guilt and self-doubt with regards to this situation afflicts me: Did I try hard enough to reach out to the student concerned to find out how they were  finding the readings and class discussions? Did I just concern myself with the ‘easy cases’ and shrink from the true pedagogical challenge at hand? I feel this especially acutely because I know that on many occasions someone who has seemed quiet and distant all semester long will suddenly reveal, in the course of a one-on-one conversation in my office–perhaps following a paper review session or something like that–that great depths lurk beneath that placid exterior. Sometimes it is evidence of a sparked interest in, and actual engagement with, the readings and classroom discussion; sometimes a minor personal remark will help me realize why this student maintains the distance he or she does. On these kinds of occasions, I feel a flush of shame run through me for having thought unkindly about this human being–one as conflicted and confused as me.

Whatever the reason for this failure to establish communication and contact with my students, every semester ends with some melancholia and regret on my part. I will probably not see them again; they will go on their own way. We spent fourteen weeks together, meeting twice a week for seventy-five minutes, but we didn’t ‘get to know each other.’ I sense an opportunity lost, one never to return. I know I’m a finite being with finite resources of interest and energy–intellectual and emotional; sometimes I do not have enough to take on board all the challenges my student raise. I know that as a teacher, I’m supposed to play additional roles as well–an amateur therapist and social worker at times. Failure in those roles needn’t be an indictment of me as a teacher but I wonder if I fail in the basic human dimension of failing to show interest in those who come into contact with me for an extended period of time. It’s a thought I will take forward with me to the next semester, already visible on the horizon as this one winds down.

Resilience In The Face Of ‘Terror’ Is Not Just For New Yorkers

Yesterday morning, an incompetent wanna-be suicide bomber almost blew himself up in an underground passageway connecting New York City’s Port Authority and Times Square subway stations.  His crude home-made pipe bomb did little damage; indeed, it failed to even kill the would-be kamikaze; it did, however, cause some understandable, instantaneous panic among the many commuters heading to work. Later, once police and explosives experts had cleared the scene, business returned to ‘normal’ and after the usual chatter online on their social media pages, New Yorkers went back to work. Or school, or home. They ate meals, talked to friends, picked up children from school.

In so doing, they did what the residents of any other city do these days when attacked by unknown assailants: they went back to doing what they do on a day like any other. They are, in this regard, not unique or particularly distinctive; they do what all humans do in the face of incipient trauma, seek a return to normalcy as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, this was occasion for more self-congratulatory noise about how New Yorkers, of all folks, are particularly unfazed by catastrophe. (Yes, this compliment is directed at me, and yes, I’m declining it.)

I have made note here on this blog, before, how we valorize these kinds of everyday responses when they are displayed by folks who are of some relevance or importance to us; we are far less inclined to make such attributions to distant folks. Those failures of attribution result in a failure of humanity; we fail to notice that carrying on in the face of disaster is what we humans do in order to survive and carry on; all human beings do this. There is nothing special about French, English, American resilience in the face of disaster; just like there is nothing special or particularly stoic about Asian or African equanimity in the face of massive political or ecological disruption. We should be sensitive to trauma induced by such catastrophes but we should not be surprised by the human capacity to recover, to endure, to even thrive and flourish. This capacity of ours is what makes us into survivors; it is how we are able to take on the good with the bad and live.

By persistently only paying attention to the resiliency of those like us, who look like us, who live near to us, we fail to establish a broader bond of empathetic experience and suffering; we fail to notice that we are united by how well we are all able to take on board that which the world puts on our plates. The misfortunes which presently serve as occasion for us to point how strong we are, how distinctive, how unique, should serve instead to make note of how, in our responses, we are like human beings everywhere, confronted with the basic facts of our existence: that life goes on, even as lives and worlds do not. It is a lesson every grieving person learns; it is one of the clearest reminders of our humanity.

Szasz On The Myth Of Mental Illness

This semester, in my Landmarks in Philosophy class, I used Thomas Szasz‘s The Myth of Mental Illness as one of the three texts on the reading list (The other two were Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman and William James’ Pragmatism.) Szasz’s argument that mental illness does not exist, that psychiatry is a pseudo-science was, as might be expected, fairly controversial; critics accused him of overstating his case and of drawing too sharp a boundary between the physical and the mental. Be that as it may, there are many, many acute insights in Szasz’s work; these continue to make reading his work a useful experience for any philosophy student.

Among these insights, in no particular order, are the following:

1. Reducing the mental to the physical comes at a cost of explanatory power. Especially when such reduction is merely offered in the form of a promissory note; many existing behavioral disorders still lack physical correlates in neurophysiology. The languages of the mental and the ethical often offer us richer and more useful explanations for understanding our fellow human beings than the language of the physical; many phenomena of social and ethical interest ‘vanish’ when subjected to the lens of the physical.

2. The so-called ‘mentally ill’ are engaged in a species of communication with us; it behooves us to try to translate their ‘speech.’ This leads to a consideration of a hierarchy of languages and a study of the metalanguage and object language distinction.

3. The category ‘mentally ill’ functions, all too often, as a catch-all category used to lump in socially undesirable behavior; what counts as desirable and undesirable is clearly a function of existing social prejudices.  The infamous DSM criteria often encapsulate such prejudices; unsurprisingly these need to be revised over time to accommodate such inclinations. (Remember that Dostoyevsky’s ‘Underground Man‘ was a ‘sick man.’)

4. A game-playing and rule-following model of human behavior offers us interesting and useful interpretations of social situations and interactions within them. (Wittgenstein’s notion of language as a kind of social game immediately comes to mind here and allows for a fruitful investigation of this claim.)

5. Medicine functions within a social, economic, political, and ethical context; the rights of patients and healers emerge within this context.  We should expect medicine to be practiced differently–with different medical outcomes–in different contexts. From this, a larger point about the social construction of science, scientific practice, and scientific knowledge can be seen to follow; the boundaries of science are very often informed by social and legal considerations. Consider, for instance, the testing of cosmetic products or new drugs on laboratory animals, experimental procedures which stand and fall depending on whether they have received legal sanction from the surrounding legal regime.

6. The autonomy and personality of the patient is a moral good worthy of respect; the practice of medicine and the relationship between the doctor and patient should be cognizant of this. (The notion of ‘informed consent’ in modern bioethics can be seen to be powerfully informed by such a consideration.)