Sunday, May 18, 2014

negative work

Murder your darlings.

-- Arthur Quiller-Couch, "On Style," Cambridge lectures 1914

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

-- attr. Michelangelo

When I worked in an art called theatre, I would pray please god don't send me on stage with any nice guys. Let me go into action with the shameless: you can count on them to do what's necessary at the moment it must be done.

Artists may be kind, but Art is cruel. Writing is cruel, if you're doing it for the writing. Writing is rewriting, they all say. The ancient advice from writers to those who would be is to kill babies. Put your beauty on the page and rip its heart out.

It's negative work, like sculpture. There's a pile of words and concealed in it is something worth reading. So hack off the blubber.  Excise everything you can and what's left, if it still breathes, is what you just realized you meant to say.

It's like music - if you're going to get there you have to get there now. Don't justify yourself - it makes you late. The right note at the wrong time is a wreck, and the right word at the wrong time is a disgrace: there you are with your dozen roses and she's run off with the other guy. So don't waste time.

No mercy. No reverence for good intentions, for what's expected, or what you think may be expected, or what you thought you meant to do. No compassion for stragglers; explanation only makes your journey more obscure. You might get lost. You might get hurt. You might die. But if you miss the tide, your voyage sticks in shallows and in miseries.

I do this for the writing.

That sounds pompous.

The actor Peter Siragusa, with whom I once worked, protested the thought that his career was an obscure one. "Obscure! I'll have to climb several rungs up the ladder before I'll deserve to be called 'obscure'!"

So I, who toil in what hardly measures up to "obscurity," say merely as a fact that I do this for the writing. That is the hygiene here practiced. I don't do this to save the world, to satisfy an entrance requirement, to win the approval of a committee or to complete a curriculum.

I hack away at my pile of words until it looks like something has been found in it alive and then, if god gives me good sense on that day, I quit. It's bloody work, a butchery to which I am addicted. I throw away mounds of flesh. I love throwing things away: it feels like victory.

There are other things to write for than writing, but if you're writing for the writing, you do things that you might not otherwise do.

First rule: brevity is, as a tedious fool once said, the soul of wit. So if you can take out a sentence, a phrase, a word, a letter without the house of cards collapsing - you should take it out. All that other stuff, all that explanation and explication and illustration and deprecation, was just getting in the way.

Second rule: the thing has more power than the idea. A proverb says the "pen is mightier than the sword," and that's better writing than "ideas can bring down governments."

Third rule: action takes precedence over abstraction.  "We shook hands" is better than "we made peace."

If you follow these rules religiously, you risk a certain divergence from the truth. Depending on the situation, that divergence may be more important or less so, it's for you to judge. But you must also decide what you mean by truth. If you write for the sake of writing, then it's the truth of writing that is of greatest price. Writing's truth is not what it says but what it does. There never was a Pequod or an Ishmael, but the tale he told to Melville has not finished its run.

I've dramatized myself again, so let me make it clear that I'm a purveyor of small fry and shall not hoist any white whales from my abbatoir. This is just a game I play and need to play, and every now and then I'm informed there are a few others willing to follow along.

Some friends suggest an alternative to the questions I posed last week, and I am flattered by their attention. I proposed that the one and only religious question is: "what is worth dying for?" They would prefer "what is worth living for?" It's hard to argue against them.

I had posed myself, for the sake of writing, a cruel assignment - naming a single question. It's like an assignment I used to give to theatre students: in one sentence (not a compound sentence) what happens in this play? this scene? All sorts of things could be said to happen in for instance Hamlet, but what are you going to make happen? Choose and you have a chance to be remembered - or you can be kind to everybody and wallow in oatmeal.

Both of the questions I posed imply other questions, and those questions could have been the basis of a conversation.

I said that the one and only scientific question is: "how do things generally work?" But the best answers to that question lead us to another question often asked of scientists - "how did it all begin?" It's not possible these days to speak deeply of how things generally work without telling the origin story called Big Bang, and that is what Tyson does. Science of the present day speaks about the general laws only with reference to a singular event, a miracle if you will -- though Dr. Broun apparently can't see the miracle in it. The greatest mystery of all, before which Tyson avowedly flummoxes, is "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

And it's hard to answer the religious question of "what is worth dying for?" without entering the companion question of what one lives for. They're not quite the same question but can often stand in for each other. If you were to get up from your chair this moment and keel over dead, without knowing what hit you, you would have died for exactly what you lived for. For some this may be an appalling thought, and we all know some people for whom the thought is not as appalling as it should be. Though for others of us this would be a fortunate outcome, most would serve themselves well by considering the sum total of their lives at regular intervals: if I died right now, what would I have died for? Making death present to ourselves, as Dr. Johnson reminded us, is a strong way to concentrate the mental and moral faculties. It is possible, by thought and criticism and courage, to die for something other than what one lived for, or to change the composition of one's living.

As a rhetorician I preferred the more shocking question. Asking people to think about their dying concentrates the mind. Perhaps that is why our late most famous minister Forrest Church used to say that "religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die." Perhaps that very concentration of the heart and mind, that particular way each of us tightens the breath and the sphincter, is our faith.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

two questions

I have felt/A presence that disturbs me with the joy/Of elevated thoughts.

-- William Wordsworth, 1798

What I’ve come to learn is that [the Bible is] the manufacturer’s handbook.

-- Rep. Paul Broun, September 27, 2012*

There is only one scientific question: how do things generally work? If you are addressing this question you are doing science. If you are asking or answering any other question you are not doing science. This goes for you and me, for fundamentalist ministers, for popes and presidents, and it also goes for scientists.

There is only one religious question: what is worth dying for? If you are addressing this question you are doing religion. If you are asking or answering any other question you are not doing religion. This goes for you and me, for scientists and philosophers, and it also goes for popes and prophets and fundamentalist preachers.

No one works on either of these questions all the time, because there are plenty of other good questions to be asked and answered, but everyone works on each question some of the time. But you can't do both at once because they are different questions, different as oil and water that cannot mix. If Neil deGrasse Tyson rhapsodizes on the awesome magnitude of space/time, revealing what makes him tick and displaying his intuition of the sacred, he has for that moment stopped being a scientist. If Dr. Broun insists that all the major scientific theories are "lies from the pit of hell," and treats the scripture as a textbook of cosmology, he has for that moment stopped being a man of faith.

Science is not about awe, and religion is not about the facts. Science is about generalities, but religion is about singularities. The product of science is expressed in laws, but the product of faith is expressed in miracles. They have nothing to say to each other.

The laws of science, i. e., Newton's Laws of Motion, or Einstein's Laws of General and Special Relativity, or the octaves and chords of the Periodic Table, are not human laws. Copernicus did not compel the earth to travel around the sun, Newton did not order every action to produce an equal and opposite reaction, and Freud did not command the Unconscious to direct our conscious decisions. So-called laws of nature express regularities. They tell us how the world generally works. It is not scientists who speak such laws but Cosmos itself, answering to those questions that scientists call experiments.

Now as every stockbroker tells us, we cannot prove, by proclamation or deduction, that the cosmos will do tomorrow what it has done till now. We can be pretty darn sure that the sun will come up again tomorrow, but we acquire that assurance by affirming the regularity of the world, that if we do this kind of thing, then a certain kind of that will follow. A scientist may be wonder-struck at what he learns, but his job is to demystify the world, and he had better get on with it. He picks out the pattern in what we thought was chaotic. He makes the unconscious conscious, the unpredictable predictable, the random lawful. Otherwise he is a failure.

Miracles, i. e., the Resurrection of an executed prophet, or the peaceful collapse of a violent empire, or the recovery of an addict, or the making of a way where there is no way, or the reconciliation of lifelong enemies, are not lawful; they are exceptions to laws. They are the things that no one can see coming. No one thought that Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley would make peace; no one thought that gay people would win the right to marry each other; no one thought a president of color could be elected; almost no one thought that people would walk on the moon -- not until these things happened.  They are things to be marveled at -- miracula.

After miracles happen, science may try to rationalize the singularity, by making new and larger laws that include it. Sometimes science succeeds. Sometimes not. With success comes demystification: a former miracle becomes the newest predictable event. With failure comes skepticism: we don't expect the thing to happen again -- or perhaps we don't expect that it happened even the first time.

If tomorrow morning the science page of the New York Times reports that a prophet, using only his words, turned certain containers of water into containers of wine, the event so described would be a miracle. But it would not end science. Nor would it prove that God exists. It would prove only what we already know: stuff happens that we have no way of expecting. But science is not about that stuff. Science is about all that other stuff that we can learn to predict. And its task is to show us how to predict things we formerly had no way of predicting.

If the New York Times reported transformation of water into wine by fiat, then on the very next morning a new research project would begin, whose goal would be to determine how, by a hitherto unknown process, water can be so altered. When we have our science hats on we expect that, sooner or later, if enough resources are provided, the project will succeed, and new larger laws of nature will be discovered. Perhaps we can industrialize the process, making vineyards unnecessary -- though there will always be those old farts who still savor miracles, clinging to the notion that there is no substitutute for terroir. And perhaps there is no substitute. It's been said that most people blindfolded can't distinguish red from white; but even if that's true do we really want to get all our wine from test tubes, forgetting what earth is for, to whom we shall return whether we are familiar with our mother or not?

I have a recurring dream that looks a bit like Tyson's voyage amidst iridescent vortices of space and time.** Like him I look through the portal of a space-ship, and I marvel at the awful beauty of what I am privileged to behold. Then I think of how far I have come from the earth, a very particular place, a New England village with trees that arch over the street, Victorian homes and a meeting-house on the square with white pillars and green shutters, a high spire and clear windows through which truth can shine. How long ago and far away. How many doors I have shut behind me, when the music grew sour, to enter different rooms with a different face and a bigger ensemble and a greater hope, one door after another. I realize that they were one-way doors; the portal of this cockpit behind me is sealed. There is no going back, only forward amidst strange splendor, and I long instead to put another log on the fire, don my slippers and sip my single-malt in an ancient parlor now forbidden by a flaming sword.

The sadness of fundamentalists, or of politicians who troll for votes by pretending to be fundamentalists, is that neither the scientific question nor the religious one is adequate in itself for life. Though I am reasonably healthy for a man of my age, I have on three occasions rejected, with the help of medical science, nature's plan for my death. And my friend has come through a greater trial than any of mine, with a vision of recovery before him confirmed by the fallible predictability of "best practice." If Dr. Broun's spouse or child gets cancer or a rotten appendix, I will not condemn him for praying; but I know damn well that before he prays he will recommend his loved one to medical science, though the scripture of science proceeds, he says, from hell-mouth. But he does not really believe that science emerges from hell-mouth: when life is on the line he will entreat the scorned goddess to work a miracle for him.

So there are two possibilities about the congressman's character. He is perhaps an outright liar, swindling those who hate the mind. Or with slender knowledge of himself he may really think he believes what he said, ignorant of his own ultimate concern. When he takes his scripture for a science text, he mixes what God has set apart, offending both science and his faith. Let us pray for his soul.

I have plenty to confess myself, but I'm pretty damn sure I know the difference between my sixteen-year Bushmill's Irish, aged as they assure me in three woods, and my Laphroig triple wood Scotch. Pretty sure. Really. I'd know it blind-folded.

*Liberty Baptist Church, Hartwell, Georgia

**Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos, Fox Television Network