Monday, November 17, 2014

Spring and What the Fall Is

"Sometimes I speak of imagination as a force, an electricity or a medium, a place. It is immaterial which: for whether it is the condition of a place or a dynamization its effect is the same: to free the world of fact from the impositions 'art' ... and to liberate the man to act in whatever direction his disposition leads." (William Carlos Williams)

This is the last post at the Pangrammaticon, marking exactly ten years of blogging. I'm grateful to everyone who has been following along.

Early on, I invoked Wittgenstein's Tractatus. The key to that book lies in the proposition "We make ourselves pictures of the facts". What Wittgenstein does not tell us is how; he merely asserts that we do. The relevant faculty is, of course, imagination, Einbildungskraft.

Rereading that post now, I notice, with pleasure, that it closes with a reference to Williams. It was no doubt the lineation of the "The Red Wheel Barrow" that I was referring to there, but it wasn't until a few years ago that I finally read Spring and All. The shock of its symmetry with the Tractatus is hard to describe. It was a vindication of everything I've done here.

Imagination is both a force and a craft. (The German word "Kraft" can mean force, or strength, or skill.) Forces are of nature as crafts are of culture. Suffering is where they meet. We call the joint by its Latin name. Art. Beauty is difficult.

"Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist," said Wittgenstein. "The world is everything that is case," or, perhaps, "all that is befallen." History is everyone who's on my case, or, all kidding aside, all that's happened. In any case, spring was beautiful this year. The summer was long. And the fall, too, has been delightful. Thus, in any case, as the weather goes.

Be reasonable! the philosopher demands. Be passionate! suggests the poet. I've tried to use this blog to find my grammatical composure. "All the usage in the world." I don't know how far there is to go, but I feel I've made some progress. Let us be reasonable and passionate. Let us be as articulate about our reasons as our passions. Let us put these beautiful bodies where our mouths are.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Enigma of Departure

Giorgio de Chirico.
The Enigma of Arrival and the Afternoon, 1911-12.

After almost ten years, I've decided to retire this blog. It has become clear to me that if this line of thinking is ever going to amount to anything it will have to become a book of some kind. I will keep my notes about poetry and philosophy to myself while I work on it.

There's a lot of stuff in the archives and I'm going to leave it up for anyone who's interested. I'm grateful to everyone who has followed along and commented on my ideas, both online and off. You have helped me to find whatever precision—clarity in regard to concepts, intensity in the grip of emotion—these pages may provide.

This is not quite my last post. It's only an announcement. As an official tenth-anniversary/retirement party on November 17, I'm going to post a kind of summary of what I think I've been doing here and what I may have accomplished.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Notes on Michael Andrews

I've written about Michael Andrews before. This morning, calling him to mind as I got out of bed, and using him for "reassurance", I reread his "Notes and Preoccupations" (X 1960, volume 1, number 2, pp. 137-141). He describes "the activity" of painting as "the most marvellous, elaborate, complete way of making up [his] mind". Which is what writing should be for me. What it isn't often enough.

"The painting episode is the real situation imagined. Re-enacted and rehearsed until its performance is the best possible. There is nothing like it in public life …"

"The painting episode is a rehearsal of behaviour in which I go through the motions again and again until it seems the best possible … The ultimate exultation is one feels is that of having done something at the top of one's form. The dispiritedness is like disgust."

This is what I must learn, i.e., to have writing "episodes". To see writing as a private "rehearsal" of behaviour that cannot be subjected to such obsessive repetition in public.

"Every aesthetic adjustment reflects an ethical preference."

In writing, too, we make "aesthetic adjustments", which means that the aim is, as in painting, to "materialize" what is on one's mind, however vague and approximate it seems. "You're now physically close to what was once in imagination." But such adjustments also have an "epistemic" dimension, reflecting its reference, perhaps. Here the writing serves to idealize what is in the world.

"Ethics have to do with self-consciousness, aesthetics with unself-consciousness."

The pangrammatical supplement is something like: epistemology has to do with it-consciousness, aesthetics with un-it-consciousness. (Or just, perhaps, unconsciousness?)

"Mysterious conventionality."

"When suddenly you are out of sympathy with someone you feel your own disposition most strongly."

There's something here too. "Every day there'll be problems and vague and incomplete fragmentary visions … Terrible anxiety to keep things in mind to realize them to the full."

But one imagines Andrews sitting down to work. To rehearse the relevant behaviors. Perfect them. "You cannot force repetitions of a situation [in public life] at the speed of rehearsals on a painting."

Nor in writing. But do we practice enough?


"One must believe, desire, love (and not be embarrassed out of loving) the atmosphere one creates—that is best."

That's good advice. It reminds me that there is a special use of the word "wise" in English, albeit only in conjunction with the preposition "up". As a verb, I mean. We can "wise up". We must not be embarrassed about this either, we must wise (v.) the atmosphere (i.e., "get wise" to it); we must not be embarrassed out of "wising".

Saturday, July 19, 2014


"The reader is presumed to be subjectively engaged with an anxious problem, the problem of his existence, which is also the problem of his suffering." (Nanavira Thera, Notes on Dhamma)

"I am entitled to assume that you are never at a loss for an authentic model to study." (Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands)

About a year ago, I was dealing with similar issues in distinguishing between existence and existentialism, the mystical and scholarly approach to things. This set off a series of posts in which I compared Hemingway, Ramana Maharshi, Henry Miller and Douglas Harding, looking at how literature and mysticism deal with the problem of existence, the reality of death. It was very illuminating for me, and I'm going to spend a bit of time rereading and reworking those posts, perhaps into the essay they should obviously become.

Looking for an English translation of the French translation of Heidegger that Cyril Connolly cites in the Unquiet Grave (mentioned in passing in my last post), I stumbled on the life and work of Nanavira Thera, who has been completely unknown to me until now. It looks very interesting. And it was a fortuitous find. Nanavira also read Connolly, and, if we leave out his reflections on the inadequacy of scholarship*, we get telling invocation of reality that resonates nicely with the remark of Connolly's that I cited. First Nanavira:

The reader is presumed to be subjectively engaged with an anxious problem, the problem of his existence, which is also the problem of his suffering. […]* Only in a vertical view, straight down into the abyss of his own personal existence, is a man capable of apprehending the perilous insecurity of his situation; and only a man who does apprehend this is prepared to listen to the Buddha's Teaching. But human kind, it seems, cannot bear very much reality: men, for the most part, draw back in alarm and dismay from this vertiginous direct view of being and seek refuge in distractions.

And here, again, is Connolly:

Both my happiness and my unhappiness I owe to the love of pleasure; of sex, travel, reading, conversation (hearing oneself talk), food, drink, cigars and lying in warm water.

Reality is what remains** when these pleasures, together with hope for the future, regret for the past, vanity of the present, and all that composes the aroma of the self are pumped out of the air-bubble in which I shelter.

It is, I would say, the same "reality" that they are here talking about. That of suffering and illusion. "Distraction". And this is where Heidegger's notion of "care" comes in. I can't shake the suspicion that both the scholar and the sage, the writer and the mystic, suffer, not from too much reality, but too little. They do not engage with experience in a practical way, they don't take their situation "in hand". As Oliver Senior puts it:

If ... the artist finds himself constrained, by any consideration of expression, treatment or style, or by his deference to the peculiar nature and limitations of his tools and materials, to adopt or invent a convention or a symbol and to substitute the semblance of a bunch of bananas or a bent fork for a representation of the human hand, then the particular problem dealt with in this book does not arise.

Senior may be right that the problem of drawing a hand is notoriously difficult to solve. The problem of existing is of course much, much more difficult. But I think Senior's is approach is exemplary. Both writers and sages have a tendency toward conventional and symbolic solutions, to substitution of a "semblance" of existence for actually being there, and doing the work.

I, too, of course, suffer from this tendency. But just as we all have a hand that we can use as a model, and therefore are always in a position to practice drawing one. And just as that is the only way to get past the difficulty, so we all have a life, which we can take in our own hands, and by this means become as good as we ever will at "existing". It's not easy, but there's no other way.

*Here's what I've left out: "There is therefore nothing in these pages to interest the professional scholar, for whom the question of personal existence does not arise; for the scholar's whole concern is to eliminate or ignore the individual point of view in an effort to establish the objective truth -- a would-be impersonal synthesis of public facts. The scholar's essentially horizontal view of things, seeking connexions in space and time, and his historical approach to the texts, disqualify him from any possibility of understanding a Dhamma that the Buddha himself has called akālika, 'timeless'."

**It is worth connecting this remark to Wittgenstein's Tractatus: "...solipsism, when its implications are followed out strictly, coincides with pure realism. The self of solipsism shrinks to a point without extension, and there remains the reality coordinated with it." (T5.64) (Cf. also William Carlos Williams).

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Two Constructivisms

I just came across a passage in the Unquiet Grave that made me sit up and ruffle my hair. Let's call it the Palinurean construction of reality:

Both my happiness and my unhappiness I owe to the love of pleasure; of sex, travel, reading, conversation (hearing oneself talk), food, drink, cigars and lying in warm water.

Reality is what remains when these pleasures, together with hope for the future, regret for the past, vanity of the present, and all that composes the aroma of the self are pumped out of the air-bubble in which I shelter.

He goes on to quote Heidegger on "care" and "anxiety". Connolly's vision can be usefully compared with the Proustian construction of reality:

What we call reality is a certain relationship between sensations and memories which surround us at the same time, the only true relationship, which the writer must recapture so that he may for ever link together in his phrase its two distinct elements. One may list in an interminable description the objects that figured in the place described, but truth will begin only when the writer takes two different objects, establishes their relationship, and encloses them in the necessary rings of his style (art)...

This will be worth thinking a little more carefully about.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


it always had
it was given

it had to have me
to be

Note: This is a companion to "Prijos". It works the etymology of "wisdom", as "Prijos" plays on the etymology of love.


i never wanted
to be mine

i only wanted you
to be

Note: For some background see this post.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Modern World

Wittgenstein: Philosophy ought really to be composed like poetry.

Pound: The essential thing in a poet is that he build us his world.

Wittgenstein: The world is everything that is the case.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Memo from Henry Miller

Looking for something else, I just came across this nugget of wisdom in the Tropic of Cancer.

On the meridian of time there is no injustice: there is only the poetry of motion creating the illusion of truth and drama. (96)

The coordination of time, justice, motion and poetry demonstrates exemplary pangrammatical precision. If you want, try to construct the pangrammatical supplement.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Alain Badiou, a Twit

This isn't fair to anyone, not Alain Badiou and not Laura Carter, but since I just realized that the latter has a Twitter feed, something must be done. Here are four recent tweets out of Atlanta:

Now, as I react to this, keep in mind that I am a great admirer of Laura's poetry and, in fact, of her poetics. (Though it's been too long since I've engaged with her work.) What I want to say, in effect, is that Badiou, even in Laura's reading of him, doesn't understand Laura's poetry. Or something like that.

My response consists of four pangrammatical correctives. First, poetry is obviously the guardian not of decency but indecency in speech. Second, the heart of a poem is not ontological but ethnopathic, it's about people not things, passions not reasons, and what is affirmed is not "not set out" as an object but not set out as a subject. ("Set out" may be the wrong phrase. "Put down" may be better. The heart of the poem is to set down the emotion on the page, not to put down the subject.) Third, (as I said to Laura almost ten years ago, in my fourth post to this blog) a poem is a positive machinery, just like philosophy. It does something, though they do different things. A poem utters not being but becoming at the point where the subject appears. Fourth, as in philosophy, the "correct method" in poetry is to say only what it is possible to say. It's just that poetry says it about different subjects.

James Baldwin once said that white people are protected from an understanding of jazz by their sentimentality. The point of my corrective of Badiou is to show that philosophy about poetry is often too much in awe of its object to really understand it. We must prevent the sentimentality of philosophers from making nonsense of poetry.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Minima Economica

We don't make people work for air.
That is, we don't charge for breathing.
But we do pay a utilities bill.
Water, gas, electricity.
And you have to pay for the food you eat.
If we charged for breathing,
and either let those who had no money suffocate
or humiliated them for "air stamps",
we would be evil. And yet we charge for
food, water, heat, shelter.

We say these are "scarce" resources.
One day we'll no doubt say the same of air.
Some of the nicest people I know
are working very hard to make the air
scarce. If they worked as hard
to secure an unconditional basic income for all,
this earth would be a paradise.
There'd be plenty of air too.

The Complicated Egoist

Is it because we are denied our natural pleasures that we become the complicated egoists that we are?

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Eliot on Hamlet

Ever since I first read it, I've thought I disagreed vehemently with T.S. Eliot's "Hamlet and his Problems". Rereading it just now, I realize I am too hard on him, probably because I take offense at the idea that Hamlet might be an "artistic failure". I still think it's a success, but tonight I'm willing to grant that Eliot makes a good case. And his reading of the play is much more generous than I have been remembering.

It seems that Eliot was aware that Shakespeare was trying to depict a man whose emotions are "in excess of the facts", a man without an "objective correlative". He does not even become a successful madman, just as Shakespeare does not succeed as an artist. Of Hamlet's madness, Eliot says:

In the character Hamlet it is the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action; in the dramatist it is the buffoonery of an emotion which he cannot express in art.

Eliot's error, I still think, is in thinking that the relevant emotion is his disgust with his mother. Read as an attempt to portray a man who is more disgusted with his mother than she deserves, Hamlet is indeed a failure. But I take a more transcendental line. Shakespeare was trying to portray a man without objective correlatives full stop. A man whose political and personal life has been entirely undermined, a man who has lost any functional family and community.

I think Mailer got it right when he appropriated Eliot's concept of the "objective correlative" for political purposes. Hamlet, Eliot says, is imprisoned with a "feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action." We are all like that, but not because of our mothers. There are much larger forces at work.

Much probably hinges on whether Hamlet and Hamlet succeed or fail as one, or separately. I think Eliot believes that Hamlet fails ever to correlate his emotion with the facts. I believe that the resolution at the end is, although of course "tragic", nonetheless successful. Understanding this, I think, is the key to appreciating Shakespeare's achievement.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Occasional Piece

Lust is to politics
what wonder is to
science. A scandal.

But wonder is also
to knowledge what lust is
to power. An occasion.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Art, Politics, Life

"There is nothing for a man but genius or despair."
William Carlos Williams

Leaving aside the imponderable quantity of my talent, I've long felt that what has held me back as an artist is my interest in life. A work of art should make us feel like Rilke before that archaic torso of Apollo. "You must change your life," it says. Well, I've simply been too committed to working out my issues through living to produce a significant work of art.

That's not nearly as a adventurous as it sounds. My rule has been to keep my experiments within the realm of the possible for the common man (I am a man, so I've only tried to live as men might). I've tried to keep things ordinary. I've held an academic post. I've held an administrative post. I've started my own business. I've married and had children. I've worked in my community. I've taken up jogging. All perfectly ordinary stuff.

I have eschewed any aesthetic that implies that the only way to live is to become an artist. Or a scholar for that matter. Artists and intellectuals cannot be taken seriously if their proposals only work for people who give up their productive labors to cultivate their "ideas". Ideas are only interesting in so far as they go into action. I don't mean that it's ridiculous to be an artist or scholar. It is ridiculous, however, to produce a work of art or scholarship whose true meaning is not "You must change your life" but "You must abandon your life".

The same goes for politics. My political career has been held back by my insistence on enjoying the freedoms I actually have. I cannot take a social movement seriously if it seems to commit me to a lifetime of social activism. I can't take a politician seriously who thinks that what he or she is doing is more important than what my bus driver or wine merchant is doing. I believe that we must first live, i.e., first change our own lives, and then express our broader base of discontent.

All that said, I do believe I have a work of art in me. Perhaps also a political project. I think I am making progress.

Thursday, June 26, 2014


What is a poet? An unhappy man who conceals profound anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so fashioned that when sighs and groans pass over them they sound like beautiful music. His fate resembles that of the unhappy men who were slowly roasted by a gentle fire in the tyrant Phalaris' bull—their shrieks could not reach his ear to terrify him, to him they sounded like sweet music. And people flock about the poet and say to him: do sing again; Which means, would that new sufferings tormented your soul, and: would that your lips stayed fashioned as before, for your cries would only terrify us, but your music is delightful. And the critics join them, saying: well done, thus must it be according to the laws of aesthetics. Why, to be sure, a critic resembles a poet as one pea another, the only difference being that he has no anguish in his heart and no music on his lips. Behold, therefore would I rather be a swineherd on Amager, and be understood by the swine than a poet, and misunderstood by men.

Søren Kierkegaard

The philistine often declares his admiration for the artist. This is generally interpreted as an acknowledgement of the profound suffering that the artist experiences, akin to that of the madman, but with the important difference of those well-fashioned lips, so that his suffering becomes articulate, and, if frightening, nonetheless imbued with beauty. We are not just impressed with the expression of the passion, we stand in respect of the intensity of the passion that appears to be expressed. We are grateful that someone else is willing to shoulder the burden of so much suffering, because it helps us (when expressed in art) to shoulder our own, much lesser burden.

But I suspect that in the heart of many a successful, comfortable philistine there is an altogether different reading of the poet's words. "This suffering," says the man of affairs, the big man about town, the self-made entrepreneur, the soi-disant job creator, "is no different from the one that I have mastered in myself. Art is merely an admission of defeat in a territory I have conquered. Success in life is the mastery of these emotions, not their expression." Thus all art, no matter how personal, no matter how pathetic, becomes an epic, a celebration of the deeds of great men, who don't feel the emotions expressed in it, but "deal with" them. Ah Palinurus! Ah humanity!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Money and Prices

I've been mulling the grammar of "money". Is it on one or the other side of the pangrammatical divide? If so, probably on the "power" side, I'm thinking. But what is to knowledge as money is to power? Well, money is the power to buy, i.e., purchasing power. Power is to people as knowledge is to things. Money always belongs to someone, let's say. It has an owner.

So what is to a thing as money is to a person?

The answer is: price. A thing's price tells us how much it is worth, just as your money tells you how much you are worth. Obviously, this is a very particular kind of "value", but I think the analogy holds. We know what things are worth and this determines their price. Price is a form of knowledge. Money, by contrast, is a form of power, a kind of mastery over people.

If money is purchasing power, price is simply purchasing knowledge.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Savagery and Laziness

It's long been my conviction that the only interesting political change that is available to us today will come from a coalition of forces drawn from the so-called extreme so-called right and left. This will require that Paul-inspired libertarians and Chomsky-inspired socialists lay aside some of their most deeply held notions about themselves and some equally ingrained prejudices about each other.

As to the latter, it is instructive to listen to Chomsky on Ron Paul's "savagery" and Joe Rogan (a Ron Paul libertarian, last I checked) on the "laziness" of socialists. Chomsky thinks that it is savage to allow an uninsured patient to die in a coma; Rogan thinks it is lazy to play bad songs on the street and ask people to put money in your guitar case. But surely it is sometimes necessary to let people die because the cost of keeping them alive is prohibitive. What is "savage" to Chomsky, I imagine, is letting a poor man die while keeping a rich man alive.

And surely it's okay to play mediocre songs on the street.

Ron Paul is right to point out that behind the uninsured man's situation there is, actually, a choice. You can live from hand to mouth and expect eventually to die in a coma or from the progression of some exotic cancer. Or you can live always fearful of the many ways you might die, insure yourself to the hilt, work hard to maintain that insurance, suck up to your boss so as not to get fired and lose your insurance, and then have the coverage you need should the worst thing happen.

If you don't require people to make such a choice, then too many people become entitled to draw on the productive capacity of the society (and therefore the labor of their fellow humans). Your contempt for savagery is also contempt for my freedom to be lazy. If I'm willing to die of a condition that would be very expensive to save me from, then I should be able to make that lifestyle choice.

Libertarians are very consistent about this when it comes to smoking. One argument for all kinds of state interference in smoking habits is that smokers cost us a great deal of money when they get the cancer they're setting themselves up for. In my utopia you'd be allowed to enjoy a life of smoking as long you paid for your own insurance or simply weren't so damned afraid to die. Chomsky seems to think that composure in the face of death is an attribute of savages.

The more I think about it, the more I can see that both Rogan's and Chomsky's opprobrium are aimed at me. I am utterly lazy and savage by their standards. I'm willing to make do with much less than I have if it will spare me the drudgery. And death is not so distasteful a prospect to me that I'll throw my support behind the perverse incentives of the medical-insurance complex.

I think I'm saying that the left and the right have to check their attitudes about work and death. Paul's take on death may be "savage" but noble. Chomsky's alleged laziness may really just be denunciation of "wage slavery". I think they could agree on these things if they tried.

Friday, June 20, 2014


It's been the basic approach of this blog to play knowledge and power off each other like third-rate diplomats. To my horror, I'm discovering that composure can only be found in the correlation of wisdom and love.

Utopia vs. Art

Conversely, it may be that my poems, my novels, my loves are meaningless until the basic food positions are sorted out.


"My heart is crammed in my cranium
And it still knows how to pound."
Frank Black

The Pangrammaticon is founded on the notion that we can be as articulate about our desires as we can be about our beliefs. For every statement or formulation of belief there is an equally articulate statement of desire. I have, lately, begun to doubt the correctness of this assumption.

Perhaps only our beliefs, our thoughts, are truly "articulate". Perhaps only our reasons constitute a system of discrete elements joined together in artful ways. Perhaps our passions are not structured, perhaps they have no grammar, but are, instead, a fluid force that carries itself into the meaning of our actions.

"Only by making this distinction—krinein in Greek—not between one being and another being but between being and beings," said Heidegger, "do we first enter the field of philosophical research. Only by taking this critical stance do we keep our own standing inside the field of philosophy." I have been assuming that there is only silence in regard to being, but that we can speak again when we speak of specific becomings. (There is also only silence with regard to becoming as such.)

Now, I am not so sure. When I consider the difference, even just the physiological difference, between "thinking" and "feeling", I wonder if I am right to imagine that my feelings are, or at least can be, as a articulate as my thoughts. I think in the head; I feel in the chest. (My mind is in my head, my heart is in my chest.) What I feel is not something that can be captured in a formula. I can be held back (the usual procedure) or it can be unleashed (usually with disastrous results). Our thoughts, our beliefs, perhaps provide a disciplined context, a structured frame, in which to experience the rush of emotion, the flow of feeling through us. But that structure is not of the feelings themselves. It is merely how feelings feel in the mind.

My articulateness, such as it is, may be entirely intellectual, even when ostensibly applied to my feelings. I pursue clarity in thinking by this means. Is that also what will produce intensity in feeling? What role should my emotions play in dealing with the fluid force of feeling? Is it like the role my concepts play in thinking?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Inequality of Leisure

Discussions about inequality generally turn on income and capital. This conceals the real injustice of inequality ("inequity" proper). The rich have disproportionate leisure to pursue their own aims, to satisfy their own hearts. And they do in fact steal that leisure from the rest of us, who work long hours at meaningless jobs to keep the money machine running. And then glut ourselves on meaningless pleasures.

It will not do to say that the unemployed don't work, that welfare recipients are lazy and have it easy. Their unemployment is subtended by worry; their leisure, in so far as it exists, is a merely a species of the "nervous boredom", Norman Mailer complained about.

Note that the word "school" derives from the Greek word for "leisure". "Whatever satisfies the heart is truth," said Whitman. The injustice, then, is also a species of ignorance. The rich have the freedom they need to learn how life works, to understand their situation, to feel at home in this world. They attend university mainly in pursuit of their identities. They learn who they are, at their leisure. For the poor, going to school is work, intended to qualify them for a life of work.

There is a simple solution to this, of course. Begin by distributing leisure time (i.e., money, i.e., a basic minimum income) and then see how we spend it. Let those who would be rich compete for the opportunities to satisfy the hearts of a people whose basic needs are met. So long as everyone has en equal amount of time freed from worry (I think that's Pound's phrase) we can accept the inequality of wealth and income.

Getting and being "rich", then, would just be one way of spending your time. One lifestyle among others. It would no longer be, as it is today, a nuisance for everyone else.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Leisure vs. Capital

"And there is nothing evident on the horizon—no backlash beyond rhetoric, no movement powerful enough to curtail or channel the flow of capital to labor—that will halt this movement," says Zachary Karabell in Slate about the preponderance of "easy cash" in the world today. "There is only cash and more cash, generating steady gains far in excess of wages, inflation, or the growth rate of so many national economies."

The radical movement that will change everything is not to tax the wealth of the rich, i.e., contract the amount of capital. (Karabell is right to say that the problem is not an excess of capital, but an excess of cash.) Nor is it to "channel the flow of capital to labor". It's much simpler: central banks should print and distribute cash to everyone, thus channeling "the flow of capital", not to labor, but to leisure. This wouldn't actually be a flow of capital, but a flow of cash. It would "erode" capital, letting it flow downward. It would not produce more jobs (we don't need more jobs). It would simply give everyone the dignity of their leisure time. If you want to be rich, that's fine, the way you do this is to provide the people who have the cash (everyone) with the things they need.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Art vs. Utopia

"The chief cause of false writing is economic. Many writers need or want money. These writers could be cured by an application of bank notes." (Ezra Pound)

"Don't write a novel about problems that a well-intentioned social program could fix," I once told a writer friend of mine after reading some of his stuff. I now realize I was talking mainly to myself, as most critics-who-would-be-writers no doubt do. All of my literary ambition, it turns out, is undermined by the fact that whatever I might say about social life, indeed, my entire critique of existence, could be rendered instantly irrelevant with an application of bank notes.

Pound, of course, meant that the blather of people who wrote to make money could be silenced by paying them off. That, I hope, isn't the case for me. (I make a decent living but exactly nothing from writing.) I could, however, accept any human condition that did not humiliate the poor. I would accept whatever forms of life emerged from minimally decent living conditions. And having accepted those forms of life, I would have no reason to compose a poem or novel. Except to entertain. And, with the "basic food positions" taken care of, I would not want to waste anyone's time with entertainment. That's just the sort of artist I am.

I.e., my art (if I have one) and my utopia are at diametrical odds with each other. If someone should come along, some latter-day Huey Long, and find a workable way to get those who own it to "share the wealth", then I would pack in my entire aesthetic, epistemic and ethical project, and start doing some useful work in the fields, or repairing the bridges, or helping old ladies across the street.

William Carlos Williams sternly rebuked those critics who (around 1944) were saying that "after socialism has been achieved it's likely there'll be no further use for poetry". I doubt that too. Socialism isn't actually the answer. But I have been able to imagine a pretty simple utopia, a well-intentioned social program, if you will, after the achievement of which there would be no further use for my poetry.

Utopian Methodology

It is by carefully considering why your utopia is not a reality that you reach an understanding of how society works. This understanding is necessarily personal and is, properly speaking, not an understanding at all. Rather, you become more precise in your obedience.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

First Draft of My Utopia

"You gentlemen who think you have a mission to purge us of our seven deadly sins, should first sort out the basic food positions…" (Bertolt Brecht)

[Please tell me what you think so I can incorporate your concerns in the next version.]

I've been obsessed with a utopia lately, and a number of pieces are falling into place. As I get older, my faith in markets increases, or at least my belief in their inexorability. Governments cannot govern in defiance or ignorance of market forces. But they should not simply "obey the markets" as some people think. Here's what I've been thinking:

First, there should be a basic minimum income, a monthly dividend paid out to everyone without prejudice or means testing of any kind. (In my radical utopia, every man, woman and child would receive the same amount from birth until death, but dependents would naturally hand their check immediately over to their guardians.)

Second, there would be no income tax and no sales tax of any kind. All money that is handed to you is yours and none of the state's business. All business would be transacted without any involvement of state agencies.

Third, since there would have to be come sort of taxation, to "cover the bill" or to control inflation as you prefer (the bill could always be covered simply through inflation since inflation is merely a hidden tax levied whenever the money supply is expanded), I would propose a land tax, i.e., a tax on the property that all owners of real estate in a certain sense fundamentally "lease" from the state that protects it with its military and police and all-around civilized behavior of the citizens who respect the fences after being properly educated and bribed with social benefits (like the unconditional basic income). It's only fair that land owners should pay for the convenience of merely having to put up a "private property" sign to enforce their claim.

Fourth, and finally, since the basic income is only worth whatever it can buy, the government would have to intervene in a number of markets to "control" prices, or, rather, to "index" the amount of the minimum income to the price of food, housing, and energy. This is where it gets good.

There already exist a number of perfectly good markets that would allow the government to influence the price of the things that every human being has a basic human right to purchase before making up his or her mind about where to contribute their labor. These markets provide a simple mechanism in which the government could exercise precisely the kinds of long-term prudence that politicians are currently and rightly being chastised for shirking their responsibility for.

There would be no need for rent control legislation. The land tax, wisely administered, would provide enough influence. If rents are too high (so that the basic income could not possibly purchase a decent month of adequate square footage) then the government would simply lower the tax on owner-occupied housing, incentivizing a switch from home rental to home ownership (since it would now become more attractive to own a property). This, of course, would drive property prices up, but it would have the effect of making more rental properties available, and therefore keep prices from rising.

Conversely, if rental prices are falling, the real estate tax could be increased. Now, this assumes that there is a government agency that monitors rental prices and has the power to determine the real estate tax. Obviously a distinction needs to be made between commercial and residential property, and, of course, the kind of business that is operating on a particular piece of land. A farm would be taxed in one way and factory in quite another. Taxes, in any case, would be determined in part by a concern about general inflation, and in part by its effect on the cost of housing.

It would be wise to determine how much of the basic minimum income should go to housing and how much for food (including water) and energy (electricity, gasoline, etc.) Once these proportions are fixed, and the "minimum" living standard has been determined (home, car, phone, internet, travel, caloric intake, meat, fresh veggies, etc.) the price of a number of basic commodities need to be placed under some control, just like rent). An individual will of course be free to have no home, become a beatnik, and just travel around in his or her car (spending the money on gas and grass) but the economic "range" of this freedom will be limited by its convertibility into, say, 50% rent, 25% food, and 25% power of a "decent" quantity.

This, then, tells us what the price of commodities should be, wheat, rice and pork bellies indexing for food, for example, and oil and electricity indexing for power. Now, all the government has to do is buy these commodities when prices get too low, and sell them when they get too high. It will often suffice to work through financial instruments like futures and options, but an ability to buy and sell at spot prices may also be necessary for some market. Here governments would need storehouses, which is a perfectly good idea anyway. In good times, the government would be storing up grain, and in bad times it would be selling it off. Prices would, correspondingly, remain stable.

This is a u-topia in the sense that it is probably never going to happen. It's a eu-topia in sense that it offers a free society, with free markets for the exchange of the products of human initiative, ingenuity and hard work. It would not force anyone into meaningless toil, producing wasteful products, simply in order to have the purchasing power required to survive and the only benefit accruing to very wealthy people who can convert the profits into actual quality of life.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Interstellar Imagination

"I could be bounded in a nutshell and
count myself a king of infinite space."

For a few brief moments the other day, I convinced myself that interstellar travel was not as unlikely as I have generally assumed. (UFOs, therefore, would be correspondingly more likely to be controlled by aliens.) Skimming the relevant Wikipedia pages, I learned of a clever scheme whereby we could travel to the stars at a constant 1g acceleration, thus providing perfect simulated gravity and, due to the miracle of time dilation, make it back and forth to almost anywhere in the galaxy within a comfortable lifetime. (Aliens, meanwhile, beginning on a planet with, say, three times the Earth's gravity, who could therefore comfortably live in a starship accelerating at 3g, and with a lifespan, just as arbitrarily assumed to be three times our own, might view interstellar distances with significantly less awe than we do.)

But then I found Nathan Geffen's entirely convincing demolition of the idea. Unless his math is simply wrong (I haven't made the effort to check), it would seem that even under the most optimistic assumptions about our future ability to convert matter into energy we would need a fuel load that weighs 4.5 times the total weight of the ship. (Yes, that's a paradox. It's like requiring the astronauts to be one fifth their own weight or something.) As Geffen puts it:

We ... have to conclude that using onboard fuel, it is theoretically impossible to get to Proxima Centauri. It doesn't matter what we set the spacecraft mass to, the ratio remains the same. So even for unmanned spaceflight a 1g acceleration to our nearest stellar neighbour is impossible.

I'm a big supporter of this kind of level-headed disciplining of our science-fiction-addled imaginations. Once you do the math, something that seemed like just a future away becomes a straight-up impossibility. So I was amused to find Geffen imagining what he calls a "not altogether far-fetched possibility" to give us (and "hard" sci-fi authors) a bit of hope:

…one day it will be possible to download the human brain, to something as small as a microchip, with durability of hundreds if not thousands of years. Perhaps if this is the future evolution of our species, we will be able to travel in this form to distant stars without being too concerned about the time it takes.

I'm sure I've seen someone somewhere do an analysis of the energy required to completely "read" the contents of an entire human brain, and the time that is subsequently required to transfer that information to some other device (like a chip). It is similar to the energy requirements needed to make a Star Trek transporter. Geffen understands the physical constraints of the universe in regards to matter and motion, but he has to learn to apply the same kind of thinking to information. Once he does so, he'll realize that the brain-in-a-chip scenario is perhaps more far-fetched than 1g acceleration to the stars. There's more going on in the nutshell of our skulls than we sometimes imagine.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Five Questions for Jonathan Mayhew

Do you believe in duende? [Answer]

Is there a "subtle bridge" that joins the senses to the living flesh? [Answer]

Is this bridge a secret? [Answer]

Do some people know this secret? [Answer]

Did Lorca know? [Answer]

Friday, May 30, 2014

Imagine, 1934, 1971

It's Friday night, and after a half bottle of pinot it all seems pretty simple. I recommend playing these videos simultaneously.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Pangrammatical Laces

Sometimes the terms of the Pangrammaticon "cross over" from one side of the knowledge-power divide to the other. I think I just discovered an interesting case. "Freedom" is an ostensibly political notion, and belongs on the power side of the divide. Indeed, desire, which is also an aspect of power, ultimately desires freedom—all desires are ultimately desires to be free, and what we want to be free from or to is what differentiates the various desires. Desire's pangrammatical supplement is "belief", and belief is to restraint (limits, discipline) what desire is to freedom. So far, everything is nice and tidy.

But concepts are to belief what emotions are to desire. And Heidegger explains that the point of philosophical inquiry into, for example, the concept of technology, is "to develop a free relationship to it". Indeed, I would say that the concept is the pivot point of our freedom with respect to our beliefs. Similarly, emotions shape desire, which is only possible if they restrain, limit or discipline them. So it would seem that the concepts are the eyelets through which the laces of grammar let freedom pass through our knowledge, and, on the other side, emotions are the eyelets through which restraint may pass through power, binding the two vast fabrics of the Pangrammaticon together.

It may be an ill-advised metaphor. But let's see where it leads.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Loyalty is the bigotry of the heart.

(See also this post, and consider this analogy.)

Culture Does Not Cause Anything

Recent events suggests that a Pangrammatical reminder might be in order. Culture is to manners what nature is to causes. Don't look for the cause of an event in your culture. If there is a cause (something that could have prevented "it" from happening), it will be found in nature. Do, of course, compose yourself in the face of events in a suitable manner. Be polite or impolite, politic or impolitic, as circumstances require.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Uncomplicated Pleasures

In his introduction to the Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly asks us to consider his "obsession with pleasure at a time when nearly all pleasures were forbidden" (xii). Later he observes that "angst ... lurks in old loves and old letters or in our despair at the complexity of modern life" (p.43). I think it is in this light that we should read Clive Fisher's description of Jean Bakewell, Connolly's first wife, as "an uncomplicated hedonist" who "was to prove one of the more liberating forces in his life" (A Nostalgic Life, p. 105).

Given all the drudgeries and miseries we are made to endure, it seems to me, our self-denial of simple pleasures, those that our bodies are perfectly capable of producing for ourselves or for each other with little or no material assistance, is puzzling, to say the least.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Artificial Bodies

Here in Denmark, we're still waiting for the release of Transcendence, so my insight into it comes from trailers, reviews and plot summaries. I suppose I could go see the new X-Men movie to pass the time.

In both cases, as far as I can tell, the posited artificial intelligence expresses itself, at least at times, through humanoid robots or zombies or something. This is probably necessary in order to tell the story and visualize the action. But can't we get serious about this for a moment? Why would an artificial intelligence, i.e., a "mind" whose "mental" operations consist of routines in a computer program, that has access to "the entire Internet", and is presumably a natural-born super hacker, which in turn gives it access to the actual machinery of the whole social apparatus (trains, airplanes, self-driving cars, power plants, pipelines, factories, ships, radio telescopes, intercontinental ballistic missiles, satellites, ets.) ever even consider the idea of interacting with the universe in humanoid form. Why would it ever show up at "eye level" with us or try to fight us "mano-a-mano"?

Are these AIs crazy? Or just really, really dumb? Nope, they're just the product of entirely natural, all-too-human imaginations. Which is why whatever "the singularity" is will never happen or already has and in any case doesn't matter.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Cost of Adventure

After writing a bit of rant on Andrew Gelman's blog, I looked up some numbers.

The cost of the Vietnam war is estimated at 111 billion 1975 dollars. Over half a million American soldiers served in the war and almost sixty-thousand were killed. The war was lost.

In 1973, the cost of the Apollo program was estimated at 25.4 billion. NASA employed about 35,000 people at the time. All told, as far as I can make out, eight Americans died in the successful attempt to get to the moon.

Now, imagine that, instead of going to Vietnam, America had committed another four times the money and ten times the people to the further exploration of space—and had considered, say, the loss of 3500 lives acceptable. Before you reject that last consideration, let me say that I would have much more willingly incurred a 1:100 risk of dying in an attempt to reach the moon than a 1:10 risk of dying in an attempt to … whatever Vietnam was about. You could have drafted me, I imagine, without much complaint.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Articulate Totality

The Pangrammaticon as such (from which this blog merely borrows its name) is the articulate totality, all the usage in the world. It is the fact (which is also an act) that commands can be as articulate as statements, that our desires are as articulated as our beliefs, that for every formulation of knowledge, like "science is the theory of the real" there is an equally articulate formulation of power, like "politics is the practice of the ideal". Its utility lies in getting us to experience more precisely the correspondences between what we see about us and what we do about it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Occasional Losses

There must be a poem
for this—something
to bring precision
to this sense of loss.
There oughta be a poem
against it, actually.
It can't be prevented,
I know, but, perhaps,
denounced. At least, let
poems come out of this.
Some small articulate shim-
mer from off this ache.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Artificial Imagination

Her is a highly enjoyable movie and in fact offers a nice vision of the future. It's neither utopian nor dystopian, just sort of neutral about where things are going, and somewhat hopeful, it seems to me, that we're heading (much, much later) towards the "clean" future of the Star Trek universe. But you'll never get me on the AI bandwagon. Artificial intelligence is complete nonsense, for all the reasons that this movie gets you to happily ignore for a couple of hours in order to enjoy the relationships between a handful of pleasant characters that you just, finally, wish all the best in the world for.

My argument is now, and will always be, that intelligence is a property of human (or ape or dolphin) bodies. Descartes was wrong to imagine (i.e., he could not really imagine) his mind without a body. And no computational process (no process running on no matter how many or how sophisticated computer processors) will ever form an image—because it has no flesh. No place for intellect and volition to meet.

There has been a long running debate among philosophers on the question, "Can computers think?" What they don't ask, but should, is: why would a computer think? Why would it develop consciousness? What purpose could it possibly serve to think if your "body" is merely an arbitrary storage device for your data, and you can "survive" indefinitely simply by making a copy of yourself? (I haven't seen Transcendence, but the trailer suggests that this is a key reason for the AI to get online.)

Intelligence forms at the natural limits of sensation, reached by freely willed motion. A "mind" that can read 180,000 names in a fraction of a second cannot enjoy the sound of one them more than another, nor get off on the imagined pleasure of a completely different kind of being. Spoiler alert: As Jonze sort of actually manages to say, imagining a human being and an operating system making love is sort of like imagining a human being having sex with a fridge, or perhaps like imagining making love to a woman who wants you to choke her with a dead cat. Unless, of course, you're just imagining Scarlett Johansson anyway. Which, I can't blame you. But there's nothing artificial about that image, friends.

See also: "Artificial Bodies" for a similar line applied to Transcendence.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Believing In

Apparently Julian Baggini and others will be discussing whether it is rational to believe in God on BBC One tomorrow. When I read the tweet I had a sudden epiphany: Is it rational to believe in anyone (or anything)?

It has always seemed somewhat silly (irrational) to me to believe in, say, Darwin or evolution or the theory of evolution. Lots of people do, but they seem to do so largely in the spirit of any other religion. They don't believe anything very specific. They believe a certain group of scientists is speaking the truth, and that preachers are speaking a falsehood. They take Dawkins to be their pope and Darwin to be their savior. Something like that, any way. Now, I think it is perfectly rational to believe that the human species, like all modern life forms, evolved from more primitive forms. It is also perfectly rational to believe that the meaning of our lives as human beings derives from the designs of some greater intelligence. As long as you believe that some proposition is true based on your belief that other propositions are true, then you are being rational in your beliefs. You may of course be completely mistaken. But you are not being irrational.

What is irrational is to "believe in" someone or something. Even your faith in a friend or spouse is not, of course, the result of a rational process. It has no propositional content, so your faith can be betrayed, but it cannot turn out to be "false". So whether or not your faith is rational depends on what you believe when you say you believe in God. Do you believe that He hears your prayers and protects you while you sleep? Well, what evidence to do you have? Then we can decide. But if you're going to admit that you're merely believing in him, then you don't need to be rational about it at all.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Poem about W.V.O. Quine

(modelled on Leonard Cohen's poem about Irving Layton in The Energy of Slaves, as if written by David Kaplan, based on Wikipedia)

Quine was wrong
about quantification
He was right
about words and objects
But he was wrong
in thinking that
substitution failure
implies existential
generalization failure for
clauses that exhibit it.

Update (29-09-16): I did not realize when I wrote this poem how much it was related to my "Notes on the Practice of Deference".


The mass of men lead lives of quiet indifference.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

A Riddle

(This is an old one. But try to puzzle it out before you look for the answer in my archives.)

What Dasein is to philosophy, what duende is to poetry, _____ is to wine.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Propositioning Attitude

Modern, analytic philosophers, like David Kaplan for example, have what might be called, pun intended, a "propositional attitude". They assume that "propositions" play an important role in language, indeed, that they constitute the "content" of language. Let me, in a similar vein, suggest that modern lyrical poets, perhaps most famously a poet like Leonard Cohen, have cultivated a "propositioning attitude". His poems suggest that somewhere, perhaps in the context of every utterance, somewhere on the periphery of language, there is a proposition in the baser sense, a shall-we-say "indecent proposal".

This immediately raises a pangrammatical issue. Indecency is to power and poetry what dishonesty is to knowledge and philosophy. If poets ultimately sing of, if not outright propose, indecency, are philosophers, too, arguing in the direction of dishonesty? Well, let's keep in mind that propositions are, in and of themselves, neither true nor false, proposals neither just nor unjust. An indecency meanwhile is not already an injustice; it is merely the "proximate occasion" of injustice, just as one can be dishonest and yet speak the truth (without knowing) or speak the truth and yet be dishonest (knowing how one will be misunderstood). That is, the proposition is an essential component of dishonesty, since it is meaningful independent of its truth. That is the root of the analogy. A poem must say something that is meaningful even when it unjust.

A mind too concerned—pre-occupied, let's say—with honesty is not suited for philosophy. A heart too worried about decency will not enjoy a life in poetry. It lacks the attitude proper to the craft.

P.S.: Propositions can contradict each other. Proposals can seduce.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Model Studies (a story)

He is a poet, she, a sad and beautiful woman.
     "We're perfect for each other," he says.
     "How so?" she asks.
     "You are a sad, beautiful woman," he answers. "And I am poet."
     "It won't last," she says sadly.
     "It may take the better part of an afternoon. Or two."
     "You have mistaken me for another kind of girl, I'm afraid."
     "Your beauty is unmistakable."
     "And my sadness?"
     "It will take a poem to get it right."
     "I don't think I'm interested."
     "I think you have mistaken me for another kind of poet."
     She is unimpressed, but vaguely intrigued.
     "I have no designs on you," he explains. "Only your beauty, its sadness. I am suggesting you come home with me, to my 'studio', if you will, and sit for me. Sit for my poem. This is something painters and sculptors have been doing forever."
     "Always with pure intentions, I'm sure!"
     "Their motives were often mixed, I'll grant. But not entirely base. There was always the painting or the sculpture. Or at least the pretense of one. It kept the session taut."
     "It maintained a certain tension. It brought precision to the encounter. I think that tension would be good for poetry."
     "How have poems been made until now?"
     "They've been recollected in tranquility, after the encounter. The encounter has had to happen in real time, in real life. No time to observe. No time to think and feel. It's like asking a sculptor to go to the park and observe all the women there, walking, jogging, lying in the sun. Then he goes back to his studio and works from memory. It wouldn't surprise us if his work lacked precision."
     "So, instead, he invites a woman he finds attractive…"
     "And sad," she adds sarcastically.
     "Yes, and sad."
     "…back to his apartment…"
     "His 'studio'," he marks the air, and smiles.
     "…and gets her to undress for his art."
     "That's the basic idea."
     "Would we sleep together?"
     "That is a distinct possibility."
     "I won't lie. But it is truly only a possibility. A very distinct one. It is precisely that possibility that the poem is about."
     "And your wife would not mind?"
     "She would. She must."
     "How is that?"
     "It's part of the necessary tension. A good poem is always an act of infidelity. (Even a poem about my wife's sadness and beauty would betray our vows.) A poem writhes against the immediate rightness suggested by our institutions—our sense of decency. Your beauty, its sadness, for example, challenges even the happiest marriage. For me to insist on noticing it is a minor scandal. But my faithlessness may produce only a poem. A poem is the fulcrum of enormous leverage…"
     "I bet," she balks. "The lightest word may move to heavy deeds."
     "Of course. Or the minor scandal may merely occasion a great poem. And that, in the end, is all I hope for."
     "Well, I won't sleep with you."
     "My poem depends on getting you to recognize only the possibility."
     "So if I remain firm you will not get your poem."
     "Exactly. But I hope I will. We talk for an hour or two. I will get a chance to see your beauty, its sadness, in good light. I'll be able to register its moods and caprices under ideal conditions. If I am good and if I am lucky, I will see the moment when you consider 'the one obvious remedy'*. I don't even need to know that that is what I've seen. I will have enough for my poem. And you can go home, unsullied."

*He is, of course, quoting from Ezra Pound's essay "Troubadours—Their Sorts and Conditions": "After the compositions of Vidal, Rudel, Ventadour, of Bornelh and Bertrans de Born and Arnaut Daniel, there seemed little chance of doing distinctive work in the 'canzon de l'amour courtois'. There was no way, or at least there was no man in Provence capable of finding a new way of saying in six closely rhymed strophes that a certain girl, matron or widow was like a certain set of things, and that the troubadour's virtues were like another set, and that all this was very sorrowful or otherwise, and that there was but one obvious remedy." (LE, p. 102)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Feat and Fact

These words have the same root:

Old French fait (12c.) "action, deed, achievement," from Latin factum "thing done," a noun based on the past participle of facere "make, do"

Today, we can distinguish between perception and action, between the things seen (the fact) and the person doing (the feat). There is no fact without things to be seen as it, and there is no feat without a person to do it. Things are the possibility of particular facts, Wittgenstein taught us. Likewise, we can add that people are the possibility of particular feats.

Friday, April 18, 2014


What I make
I can keep
or sell
or give away.

But I must own forever
what I do.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Discipline and Freedom

But to have liberty one must first be a man*, cultured by circumstance to maintain oneself under adverse weather conditions as still part of the whole. Discipline is implied. (William Carlos Williams, "Against the Weather", SE, p. 209)

Etymologies sometimes catalyze Pangrammatical discoveries. I don't like making too much of them, but sometimes it really can't be helped. This is one of those cases, and I must say it startled me.

free (adj.)
Old English freo "free, exempt from, not in bondage," also "noble; joyful," from Proto-Germanic *frijaz (cognates: Old Frisian fri, Old Saxon and Old High German vri, German frei, Dutch vrij, Gothic freis "free"), from PIE *prijos "dear, beloved," from root *pri- "to love" (cognates: Sanskrit priyah "own, dear, beloved," priyate "loves;" Old Church Slavonic prijati "to help," prijatelji "friend;" Welsh rhydd "free").

That's right, dear friends, "free love" is ultimately a pleonasm. Freedom is what love is all about; or, more precisely, love is the root of all freedom. [Freedom and love have one root.] This jibes so nicely with the Pangrammatical notion of love as "the master emotion", and that "desire seeks freedom", that it almost brings tears to my eyes.

What brought me here was reading Williams' "Against the Weather", the third part of which begins with a reflection on America as the symbol of freedom. He is trying to correct "the commonly accepted and much copied cliché, [that freedom implies] lack of discipline, dispersion" (SE, p. 209). This reminded me of a previous Pangrammatical discovery, that belief is always a belief in limits. We can now be more precise:

Freedom is to desire, what discipline is to belief.

But what is discipline? Again, let us check the etymology.

discipline (n.)
... directly from Latin disciplina "instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge," also "object of instruction, knowledge, science, military discipline," from discipulus (see disciple (n.)).

disciple (n.)
Old English discipul (fem. discipula), Biblical borrowing from Latin discipulus "pupil, student, follower," said to be from discere "to learn" [OED, Watkins], from a reduplicated form of PIE root *dek- "to take, accept".

The disciple is the student, the learner. Discipline is the form of learning. (Liberty is the structure of escape.) So we can adduce the following analogy:

All desire desires to be free; all belief believes in learning.

For Williams, the poet differs from the philosopher "in point of action … It is not the passive 'to be' but the active 'I am'" (SE, p. 197). He here forgets, however, that the philosopher, too, can be an artist. The obverse, in any case, is also true: the philosopher differs from the poet in point of fact. Not the "I am", perhaps, but the no less active "it is".

Let us put it this way. There is a love of action, often expressed in poetry, sometimes as the despair of being unable to act, the "melancholy fit". This love is always a love of freedom. And there is, on the other hand, the wisdom of the facts, which philosophy can register with great artfulness. And this wisdom is always the wisdom of learning. That is, we must of course find our freedom in experience, but there is an important limit. Whatever we do, whatever actions we take, must afford us opportunities to learn. (Injustice—evil—is action that affords no opportunity for learning. Think on it, friends.) And here, as Williams rightly says, "Discipline is implied."

*This was written in 1938. While probably not intended that way, I hope feminists, too, will be able to appreciate the joke. It is akin to Woolf's "To write, a woman needs money and a room of her own." So did men, of course. So do we all. It's all about specifying the problem (problem for whom?), which is particular to the Age, and constitutes the "form and pressure" of the times in which we live.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Pictures and Structures

"[T]he purpose of Playing […] was and is, to hold as 'twer the Mirrour vp to Nature; to shew Vertue her owne Feature, Scorne her owne Image, and the verie Age and Bodie of the Time, his forme and pressure." (William Shakespeare, Hamlet)

"How does this apply here, today?" (William Carlos Williams, "Against the Weather")

Pictures are to facts what structures are to acts. Structures transmit forces, pressures; pictures capture shapes, forms. "Think of a work of art—a poem—as a structure," says Williams. "A form is a structure consciously adopted for an effect" ("Weather", SE, p. 217). A work of art is a structure in the form of a picture, a picture impressed with a structure. (Long ago, I said the image is a concept backed liked an emotion.)

"The image in the flesh, reaching up to reality in the fact, reaching up to ideality in the act."

In "Danse Russe", Williams observes himself, naked in his room,

before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
"I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"

In the mirror, he is able to see himself, alone. But he must be standing on the floor, he must be grounded. The work of art is a mirror, something "to look at" to see ourselves. But we must stand before it, there must be some ground, some "bottom", a floor. (Too much, perhaps, depends upon these etymologies.) Williams sees himself—dancing, lonely—himself. And,

If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,—

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household.

In Heidegger, we have the Gestell—the apparatus, the frame—and, less famously, the Gebild—the structured image. They are outside us, beyond our skins, beyond the drawn shades, and constitute the "the verie Age and Bodie of the Time", as actual to us as the weather. As real.

Against this, says Williams, he puts his freedom and his discipline. He produces a work of art, an imagined structure, let us say, and an imagined picture. He "build[s] his living, complex day into the body of his poem" (SE, p. 217). The mirror is not simply a "true" picture of his "grotesque" body. His body stands before it and is shown his feature, his image. Even as he dances his poem is coming into being in the imagination of this "happy genius".

The imagination is the transmuter. It is the changer. Without imagination life cannot go on, for we are left staring at the empty casings where truth lived yesterday while the creature itself has escaped behind us. It is the power of mutation which the mind possesses to rediscover the truth. (SE, p. 213)

It is not that the work of art IS a "mirror of nature". It holds the mirror up. It shows you that you are happy when you are alone [, an emotion that is also beautifully noted down in Williams' "Waiting"]. The work of art teaches your body to absorb the pressure of the Time and (trans)forme it into a complex, daily act of living.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Picture of the F/acts

For my money the lynchpin of Wittgenstein's Tractatus is 2.1, "We make ourselves pictures of the facts." Some would translate "Wir machen uns Bilder der Tatsachen," as "we picture facts to ourselves", but I like that word "make" (machen) because it indicates poeisis, i.e., poetry.

Those "pictures" are of course what I normally call images, units of imagination. And this works out well in translation, too, since Bilder (pictures) is the the root of Einbildungskraft (imagination). We are talking about the power of making pictures. I'm borrowing that somewhat odd locution from Christopher Hitchens' appreciation of George Orwell's phrase "a power of facing unpleasant facts", which he thought was important to becoming a writer.

It would not be all wrong to think that your power of making pictures, defines your "voice" as a writer. Just as your power of facing unpleasant facts defines your style as a political writer, and your power of facing people quite generally, in social life, probably defines your ordinary speaking voice.

In another context, Thomas Presskorn recently impressed on me "the difficulty of distinguishing clearly (and in practice) between 'the sound of our speaking' and 'its mere sense'. Voice is often semantically, even assertoricly, relevant." In responding, I found myself speaking in the slightly mechanical voice of the Pangrammaticon:

Consider the "simple" case of the sentence as spoken [with all its tone and rhythm, sincerity and irony, competence and diffidence]* and the same sentence written down. The difference between these two utterances is "voice" in a literal sense. Perhaps this has provided a model for the idea that there is a difference between the sentence as written (with all its accidents of style and errors of typography) and its "propositional content", or sense, which again can be distinguished from its full "meaning", i.e., that which includes the fact that the sentence is about, its reference.

There is the question of whether it's style "all the way down" (and all the way up). This may include not just voice, but also gesture, and will cover every function of language between perception and action. It's the full ramification of the way the "picture reaches right up to reality". It's the image in the flesh.

And yet…

Aren't science and politics just the perfectly legitimate activities of softening and sharpening the voice enough to explicate some relatively unambiguous "content". I.e., to make a determination of sense and motive, i.e., what we "mean" by our seeing and doing.

The image in the flesh, reaching up to reality in the fact, reaching up to ideality in the act.

*added 12.04.2014

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Mirror of Nature

Williams: "I suppose Shakespeare's familiar aphorism about holding the mirror up to nature has done more harm in stabilizing the copyist tendency of the arts among us than —" (S&A, p. 50-51)

Wittgenstein: "Propositions cannot represent logical form: it is mirrored in them. What finds reflection in language, language cannot represent. What expresses itself in language, we cannot express by means of language. Propositions show the logical form of reality. They display it." (T4.121)

Williams: "the mistake in it (though we forget that it is not S[hakespeare] speaking but an imaginative character of his) is to have believed that the reflection of nature is nature. It is not. It is only a sham nature, a 'lie'." (S&A, p. 51)

Wittgenstein: "How can logic—all-embracing logic, which mirrors the world—use such peculiar crotches and contrivances? Only because they are all connected with one another in an infinitely fine network, the great mirror." (T5.511)

Williams: "Of course S. is the most conspicuous example desirable of the the falseness of this very thing. He holds no mirror up to nature but with his imagination rivals nature's composition with his own." (S&A, p. 51)

Wittgenstein: "If a fact is to be a picture, it must have something in common with what it depicts." (T2.16)

Williams: "He himself become 'nature' — continuing 'its' marvels — if you will" (S&A, p. 51)

Wittgenstein: "Logic is not a body of doctrine, but a mirror-image of the world." (T6.13)

It has always seemed to me that Shakespeare's aphorism has been grossly misunderstood by those who would question the very possibility of representation. Here, Williams, too, makes the mistake of suggesting that Shakespeare can be used to justify the "copyist tendency", or what in philosophy is called the "picture theory of meaning", which Wittgenstein's Tractatus of course is taken to represent.

Just as erroneously, I would argue. The picture is not the meaning of the proposition; rather, the picturing is. The fact that one fact is a picture of a another fact is the meaning; the picture is not simply the meaning. Rather: "The pictorial relationship consist of the correlations of the picture's elements with things." (T2.1514) The picture does not represent the meaning; the pictorial relationship, with all its "crotches and contrivances", is the meaning. This is why "logic is transcendental" (T6.13).

And this is in fact what Shakespeare says of the so-called "mirror of nature". It is not the function of art to provide a "copy" of nature (in, presumably, the mirror). Rather, we stand in the same practical relationship to a work of art as we do to a mirror. The surface of the mirror (which is a distortion of natural perspective even when perfectly smooth and flat) determines, not a representation, but a relationship: an infinite possible number of images depending on how we pose in front of it. The work of art "hold[s] as 'twere a mirror up to [our] nature", i.e., the audience must see itself in the play (which is of course exactly what Hamlet hopes to achieve with Claudius), "to show virtue her feature" (if we have virtue, we should be shown this), "to scorn his own image" (if that's what's needed), "and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure" (III, ii., 22-24.)

That last line gives me my point of departure for the next post in this series. It means precisely that the mirror must rival nature's composition, "continue its marvels", not merely copy it. The mirror is always also a lens: it focuses our attention. On ourselves.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

What So Much Depends Upon

If you can actually imagine a red wheel barrow,1 we'll grant you all the rest.
     When one says that a great deal depends on such and such an image, of course that does not mean that other images wouldn't be adequate too; the natural object is always the adequate symbol. But each may be as dull as any other. (On this a curious remark by E. Pound.)

To get into the correspondences between the Tractatus and Spring and All, published in 1922 (in English) and 1923 respectively, let's start with Chapter XXII of the latter, which (after the famous red wheel barrow) begins with the following remark:

The fixed categories into which life is divided must always hold. These things are normal — essential to every activity. But they exist — but not as dead dissections.

The opening gestures of the Tractatus of course spring immediately to mind:

1. The world is everything that is the case.
1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.
1.2 The world divides into facts.

The crucial difference in outlook of the two books, which we can label simply "poetic" and "philosophical", is here captured by Williams's focus on "activity" and Wittgenstein's focus on "facts". Facts are to philosophy what acts are to poetry. Both, however, are emphatic about how "essential" all this is: Williams already in the quoted paragraph and, of course, in that iconic opening stanza "so much depends/ upon", Wittgenstein at 2.011, saying, "It is essential to things that they should be possible constituents of states of affairs."

This is a good beginning.

1The cleverness of this bit will be lost on anyone not familiar with the opening remark of Wittgenstein's On Certainty, Chapter XXII of Williams's Spring and All, and Ezra Pound's "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste". Even this footnote is thus clever.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


A friend reminds me that today is the first day of spring.

…life again begins to assume its normal appearance as of "today". Only the imagination is undeceived. The volcanos are extinct. Coal is beginning to be dug again where the fern forests stood last night. (If an error is noted here, pay no attention to it.) (WCW, Spring and All, p. 10)

Like last year, I'll devote a series of posts now to the delightful correspondences between Williams' Spring and All and Wittgenstein's Tractatus.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Existential, Inspirational

The words "existential philosopher" are not yet* as ridiculous as the words "inspirational poet". But they should be. First of all, both are pleonasms. All philosophers are existential, all poets inspirational. That's their business. It's silly for a poet to insist on the role of inspiration in their work. The same goes for the role of existence in the work of the philosopher.

*The Pangrammaticon has not yet been influential enough.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

"Money turns value into information."

It's one of those sentences that once you think of it, you imagine must already have been written, but which Google then comes up empty on. All this happens in a flash, before you know whether the sentence even expresses an opinion you hold. Like the way a poem begins.

It expresses an idea that is related to Lisa Robertson's views on money. There is a general trend in culture—it's been going on for thousands of years—to turn experience into information. It's unfair to inventors and craftsmen to call this process the rise of "technology". It's the actual fact that the things I value, even the things I love, are increasingly experienced, by me, as information, and this information is increasingly coded in terms of money. Cities "dissolve in the fluid called money".

Update: it is possible that art is the opposite of money. Art turns information back into experience. This is why really great art is so expensive. It's money trying to overcome art. There would not need to be any art if all value was experienced directly. (I'm talking about "high" or "pure" art, of course, not craft. Art for art's sake is the craft of combatting the deleterious effects of money on experience.)

None of this should be considered a kind of "anti-money" position. Someone who complains about the flooding of his basement is not "anti-water". It's about proportions. Some value is best administered with information. Just not all.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Poetry and Culture, Philosophy and Nature

Poetry is the most precise means we have at our disposal to engage with culture. Philosophy offers comparable precision in dealing with nature.

I'm tempted to say your culture, your nature. That is, a poem will never occasion a confrontation with culture "as such", and there is of course no such thing. There's only ever whatever culture you carry within you. Likewise, philosophy can show you nature as it inheres in you, not as "it is" separate from your experience of it.

The locus of our philosophical encounter with nature is the concept, which is simply the attunement of our perceptual apparatus to particular things, thus rendered immediately knowable in experience as objects. The temper of our poetic encounter with culture, meanwhile, is the emotion, i.e., the direction of our actual dispositions among particular people, thus immediately empowering us as subjects.

It is by putting these encounters into words, clearly in the case of philosophy, intensely in the case of poetry, that we attain the highest available precision in our engagements with nature and culture.

Language strives towards precision. It articulates us.

Saturday, March 01, 2014


All my joys to this are folly,
Naught so sweet as melancholy. (Robert Burton)

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes. (John Keats)

If folly is the domination of reason by the passions, let us say that melancholy is the domination of passion by reason. The danger is that folly degenerates into mere stupidity, melancholy into cruelty. But if Erasmus was able to sing the praises of folly, Dowland was able to compose his melancholy into music. That is, Erasmus was able to argue that folly made love possible despite reason, Dowland was able to show that wisdom was possible in the face of great passion.

Something like that.

It is important to recognize folly as a kind of intelligent stupidity—unwise, to be sure, but not a denial of wisdom. Likewise, there is something loveless about melancholy but not a denial of love as such. There is always a kindness in its cruelty.

Finally, consider that folly thrives in seduction, and melancholy dwells in our contradictions. Folly leads us astray, melancholy speaks against us. Always for our own damned good.

Friday, February 28, 2014


It is, let's say, "the wisdom of the heart", the error in thinking that is caused by feeling, the unreasonableness of passion. But it is not simply a defect. Its ground is in something positive, our emotions. And this is why Erasmus was able to sing its praises.

What is the pangrammatical complement? Spinoza talked about "the intellectual love of a thing". What is to passion as folly is to reason? What do we call the loss of feeling that is caused by thinking, the dispassionateness of reason?

Monday, February 24, 2014


I few years ago, I came up with the unhappy notion of "anthropopathy" to capture the idea that there can't properly speaking be a "science of man", a scientific account (logos) of the human—no anthropology, that is, not even a philosophical one, because humanity is not a concept but an emotion, not a reason for being, if you will, but a passion to become. But this has not, of course, brought an end to the human "sciences", which are as strong as ever.

One of the means by which they establish themselves is to interpret all passion as a species of suffering on the model of illness. If you want to replace anthropology with a horrid word like anthropopathy (which I granted at the time was a indeed a very ugly word) then perhaps you also want to abandon sociology and psychology by a similar maneuver? But that just makes you either a sociopath or a psychopath.

It's a clever move. If you are not going to be reasonable, rational about your society or your psyche then you are implicitly admitting you're insane, i.e., irrational. But we should push back against this interpretation. After all, a great deal of mental illness simply is to approach emotions (i.e., one's own) as objects for rational analysis, rather than actual guides to who one might become.

If I'm right, the original error was to let philosophers consider the question of our humanity. They treated it as the unknown object of some obscure concept. Then they helped scientists believe that key parts of the object were now known, and well enough to be theorized good and proper. Throughout the centuries, the poets have been gradually pushed to the side, and with them the fundamental point that the self is not meant to be known in theory but to be mastered in practice.

It is not that the human has been conceptualized badly, but that it has been conceptualized at all. The construal of a pathos under logos has turned our passions into so much suffering. Though it may have been done in the name of rationality, there's nothing reasonable about it. I guess I risk being called insane for pointing it out.

See also: "Emotion and Society"

Update: In his 2013 book Intractable Conflicts Daniel Bar-Tal has coined the much less unhappy word "ethnopathy" (p. 344) to describe essentially what I'm talking about here: the suffering of peoples or, less, dramatically, a feeling toward a group. I believe this concept is absolutely crucial to resolving the world's current conflicts, its cultural crises, both in the West and between the West and its Other.