Saturday, October 29, 2016

Quotes: Stability of personal identity

C. J. Ducasse:

"A mind, then, is a set of capacities of the three generic kinds mentioned, qua interrelated in the systematic manner which constitutes them a more or less thoroughly integrated personality; and the mind, of which we say that it "has" those capacities, is not something existentially independent of them, but "has" them in the sense in which a week has days or an automobile has a motor. That a mind exists during a certain period means that, during that period, ones or others of the capacities, which together define the particular sort of mind it is, function. That is, the existing of a mind of a particular description is the series of actual occurrences which, as causally related one to another, constitute exercisings of that mind's capacities. A mind's existing thus consists not just of its having a particular nature, but of its having in addition a history."


Mircea Eliade:

"The world (that is, our world) is a universe within which the sacred has already manifested itself, in which, consequently, the break-through from plane to plane has become possible and repeatable."


Johannes Climacus:

"Can a historical point of departure be given for an eternal consciousness; how can such a point of departure be of more than historical interest; can an eternal happiness be built on historical knowledge?"


John Locke:

"[Consciousness is] a present representation of a past action.
"


Rollo May:

"History – that selective treasure house of the past which each age bequeaths to those that follow – has formed us in the present so that we may embrace the future. What does it matter if our insights, the new forms which play around the fringes of our minds, always lead us into virginal land where, like it or not, we stand on strange and bewildering ground? The only way out is ahead, and our choice is whether we shall cringe from it or affirm it.
"


Sources

C. J. Ducasse, The Belief in a Life After Death, p 55

Mircea Eliade. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion: The Significance of Religious Myth, Symbolism, and Ritual within Life and Culture. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957, 1959, 1961. p 30.

Johannes Climacus (Soren Kierkegaard), Philosophical Fragments. ed. and trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, 1985. p 1.

Rollo May, Love and Will, New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1969. p 325.

Friday, October 28, 2016

On perception and the unconscious

R. W. Fevre:

"Well, perhaps we can make use of this awareness [of ourselves and our world and how our actions affect the world], but this is not going to be easy because human beings do a lot more things than make sense, and some of these things — pursuing power, money, status, security and so on; or simply taking our ease — can get in the way of making sense.
"

Calvin Luther Martin:

"The words of the magician snaked in and out of my consciousness: 'It has become clear to me that perception has to be understood and recognized as a reciprocal exchange. When we see things we are also being seen by them. When we hear things we are also being heard. Perception is a type of communication that precedes language.'"

Alan Watts:

"There may be no reason to believe that a return to the lost feeling will cost us the sacrifice of the individualized consciousness, for the two are not incompatible. We can see an individual leaf in all its clarity without losing sight of its relation to the tree."


Antonio R. Damasio:

"Some organisms have both behavior and cognition. Some have intelligent actions but no mind. No organism seems to have mind but no action. My view then is that having a mind means that an organism forms neural representations which can become images, be manipulated in a process called thought, and eventually influence behavior by helping predict the future, plan accordingly, and choose the next action."


Jonah Lehrer:

"'The conscious brain may get all the attention,' says Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at NYU. 'But consciousness is a small part of what the brain does, and it's a slave to everything that works beneath it.'"


Norman Mailer:

"Sometimes I think you have to groom the unconscious after you've used it, swab it down, treat it like a prize horse who's a finer animal than you."


G. W. F. Hegel:

"Only when spiritual unity steps beyond this circle of feeling and natural love, and arrives at the consciousness of personality, does that obscure and rigid nucleus emerge in which neither nature nor spirit are open and transparent and where both can become open and transparent only through the further working of that self-conscious will and, indeed, through the long drawn-out cultural process, the goal of which is very remote. For consciousness alone is that which is open, that to which God and anything else can reveal itself."

Sources

R. W. Fevre. The Demoralization of Western Culture: Social Theory and the Dilemmas of Modern Living. London: Continuum, 2000. p 196.

Calvin Luther Martin, In the Spirit of the Earth, p 24

Alan Watts. Nature, Man, and Woman (1958). New York: Vintage Books, 1991. p 8.


Antonio R. Damasio. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Avon Books, 1998. p 90.

Jonah Lehrer. How We Decide. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. p. 23.

Norman Mailer. The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing. New York: Random House, 2004. p. 142.

G. W. F. Hegel. Reason in History: A General Introduction to the Philosophy of History. Translated by Robert S. Hartman. Indianapolis: Library of Liberal Arts, Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1953. (Originally 1837.) p 74.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Eunuchs in the 'Percheron Saga' by Fiona McIntosh

Fiona McIntosh's trilogy The Percheron Saga contains the novels Odalisque, Emissary, and Goddess. The first book is set in the royal harem in the imaginary city of Percheron, which is a fantasy version of the Turkish harem in Constantinople. In her acknowledgments, McIntosh writes that she based her fictional world on the old account of a travel writer (though she doesn't say which one). Palace eunuchs feature in the story and, in particular, the head eunuch, Salmeo, is a quintessential example of the "evil eunuch" trope. Everything he does is pure cruelty and manipulation, which is explained as owed to his frustration over his castration, on top of which he is described as being physically repulsive. He has no redeeming characteristics or moments whatsoever. As the most influential person in the harem, he controls the sequence of events in the novel.

This post contains spoilers about Odalisque. in the process of revealing Salmeo's character.

Salmeo in 'Odalisque'

As Grand Master Eunuch, apart from the Zar (the Percherese word for the Sultan), he is "the most powerful man within the palace," rich and influential, fearing no one except the Valide [the Zar's widow]. He authorizes all activity, significant and insignificant, within the harem. He buys clothes for the harem women and gives individual permission to female merchants to trade their goods. He orders individual eunuchs to perform physical tasks. He keeps track of when the Zar consorts with any concubine. After the death of the Zar, the Valide indicates that his young heir's private conversation with a harem girl "terribly incensed Salmeo," and when the heir asks Salmeo to leave the room, Salmeo "bristled." The young Zar acknowledges who really has power: "I don't have as much say as everyone seems to think. Salmeo and the Valide are the King and Queen of the harem."

Salmeo's body repulses the other characters. His cheek is scarred. The scar has the shape of a rope and it sometimes twitches or "lifted with the man's sly grin." His face is "normally unreadable," sometimes "blank," though sometimes he "smirks" or is "sour-looking." He "flounced in confidently," acknowledges the Zar with a "soft, bouncing bow" and speaks in an "effeminate, lisping way" that, despite being "gentle," is used to intimidate. Only when necessary, he "bellowed." Even the simplest, smallest act of taking a bite of food is described grotesquely: "He bit down on the grape, enjoying the explosion of juice, letting it trickle down his throat as he considered his position. He spat the seeds out." Even his attempt at hygiene with a signature scent is disgusting: He sweetens his breath with violet perfume that he "habitually blew over all those he spoke with."

His obesity is frequently pointed out. His body is described as "bulk" multiple times. He is a "silent mountain of black flesh," "huge," "enormous," affecting people with his "sheer size," "his folds of loose, flabby skin...that had to be lifted away in order for him to be cleaned," "flesh wobbling tremulously," and, when the Zar appears, "Salmeo took longer than anyone to kneel" and requires "much grunting." Sometimes he is just "the fat black eunuch," "the fat eunuch," or "the fat man." His "flabby face wobbled with the effort of holding back his own rage."

He is intimidating.

  • "He put the fear of a thousand angry gods into most people around the palace..."
  • "Now Salmeo did allow the broad smile to break across his wide face, revealing the cavernous gap in his front teeth. His tongue flicked into and out of the hole like a snake tasting vibrations in the air. He saw the girl's flinch of disgust, fed on it."
  • "He matched his revolting looks with a vicious demeanor..." It seems that "intimidation was always his intention despite his avuncular tone." "He enjoyed it too — enjoyed it especially because he knew she could never win."
  • "He was also cruelty personified...but then you didn't become Grand Master of the Eunuchs without taking a perverse pleasure in punishment." He believes that "everyone could be bought if you threatened those they loved. That's why no one could ever compromise the Grand Master Eunuch — he loved none but himself."
  • "Salmeo obviously intended to crush Ana's spirit well before she acquired any delusions that she might survive the harem with her integrity and personality intact."

He is negative to the core, down to his anatomical heart: "Salmeo's heart was pumping hard and it was not only pushing blood around his body. Anger throbbed in tandem. The eunuch hated to reveal when his emotions were being stirred; he preferred that no one know what he was thinking or how he was reacting to a situation."

Furthermore, he is "horrid," "vile," just plain bad. Other eunuchs "could feel the hate emanating" from him. He knows: "Fear was power." It is explained that "the chief eunuch took his own cruel form of pleasure at the expense of the harem women." His right index fingernail is always kept sharp, as he uses it to perform physical investigations of girls who join the harem and he likes to hurt and humiliate them when he does it, and he keeps it painted red so that they always see it and remember it. A slave maintains his nails for him. When a girl says, "I hate you, Salmeo," he answers with a grin, "Everyone does."

"No one appreciated the need for absolute supremacy more than Salmeo." The Valide, who has the marvelous epithet First Wife and Absolute Favorite, dislikes eunuchs and refers to them as "half men." She especially "detests" Salmeo, but knows she needs him as an ally.

When the Zar dies unexpectedly, one male heir must be selected, and all other male children are killed at the Valide's orders. Salmeo arranges for the women to be taken to another location and distracted so that their children can be collected, and then tells the boys that they will play a game that involves hiding in sacks, and then has them trampled by elephants and burned. "Salmeo embodied so many unpalatable characteristics, it was hard to imagine how they all came together in one person."

The most complimentary thing ever said about him is that he is smart, but this is only in the service of evil. He is "calculating," with an "agile mind," and is specifically "the cleverest, most sly man she had ever known...as cunning as he was dangerous..."

The Elim

Salmeo commands a eunuch warrior guard called, in plural, the Elim. Most of them were castrated as adults. They indicate their privilege over other palace eunuchs by wearing red robes. They worship Zarab and believe in an afterlife. In Odalisque, they are not shown fighting, but they perform bodyguard functions such as catching a fainting concubine. In any case, Salmeo manipulates and frames the head of the Elim and an apprentice torturer, and makes the senior torturer lie. Only once, at the end, does he weep, when it seems that he may be about to be caught for a serious crime that would lead to execution, and "to hear him cry was the most uncomfortable moment Boaz [the young Zar] had known in his life." Salmeo tells the head of the Elim: "I need a scapegoat and you're the perfect solution. I can't possibly take the blame myself." He promises the unfortunate man that he will care for his children after his death. "It's how much I value what you will do for me. I pledge it. All this will occur if you'll lie for me...and die for me. You are Elim, after all." When the man pauses while delivering his false confession, Salmeo "nudged [him] with his toe" to get him going again. As for the apprentice torturer, when his mentor asks, weeping, "What will happen to [him]?," Salmeo answers, "Who cares?" ("smiling cruelly," of course), and reminds the man that he'll receive a cash reward to "ease your troubled conscience."

Castration in Percheron

Why is he so evil? Because he was castrated. This is the only explanation given. "Salmeo had been cut at the age of seven...He was an 'almost complete': nothing much was left of his manhood save the painful yearning of desire. No toys, no tricks, no magicks helped ease Salmeo with his frustrations, so he took his pleasures in other ways." This is later defined as "Yerzah," the amputation of only the penis. (Other types of castration in Percheron are "Xarob," the destruction of the testicles, and "Varen," the removal of penis and testicles.)

The Valide remembers Salmeo once ordering a castration and commenting: "the wretch died anyway but it was wonderful to watch a Galinsean's manhood removed...They are the most arrogant of races and the hardest to tame." In the novel, he takes pleasure in castrating a young boy who trespassed in the harem. For this hasty ceremony, the lighting in the room was dimmed and candles were placed around the boy. Salmeo indicated that witnesses were to keep its details secret. "In this rare instance it is being used as punishment," he explained, "but Kett will appreciate in time to come that he is privileged. It is a high honor to serve in this way." The priest throws powder on the candles to cause them to flare. The boy's abdomen and thighs are bound with linen. He is drugged and bathed with an ointment of pepper water and juniper, both for medical sterility and spiritual purity. The Valide chooses the type of castration and says she wants to personally keep the preserved organs. The urethra is plugged for three days until he heals and is allowed to urinate.

Percheron has a legend from centuries previously in which an incompletely castrated "eunuch" managed to impregnate one of the Zar's wives. To save the girl from execution, the eunuch volunteered to die on her behalf. (He was killed by being thrown onto hooks and left to hang on them.) This was the most famous instance of a rule by which someone may volunteer to take another's punishment.

Quotes: A mythic interpretation of relationships

Mircea Eliade:

"Speaking for myself, the definition that seems least inadequate because most embracing is this: Myth narrates a sacred history; it relates an event that took place in primordial Time, the fabled time of the ‘beginnings.’ ... Myth, then, is always an account of a ‘creation’...

* * *

Myth teaches him the primordial ‘stories’ that have constituted him existentially; and everything connected with his existence and his legitimate mode of existence in the Cosmos concerns him directly."

Allan Bloom:

"A father must prefer his child to other children, a citizen his country to others. That is why there are myths — to justify these attachments."

Lawrence Kushner:

"I'll let you in on a trade secret: After you do enough weddings, you realize that every bride and groom are the same. Don't misunderstand me, of course each one is unique. But in a broader context, every bride and every groom are Adam and Eve. They are players in an eternal drama. They look at one another, their heart's desire, and realize that the other person is a stranger. They live together for forty or fifty years and realize that, for all of their love, the other person is still a mystery. The power of their love is that these feelings transcend them as individuals. That mystery smelts us down into one lump of humanity and makes literature and art possible. The greater the emotion the more intensely personal and intimate the feeling, the more likely it is shared with all human beings."

Joseph Campbell:

"Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to he center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world."

Sources

Mircea Eliade. Myth and Reality. (1963) Translated from the French by Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1975. pp. 5-6, 12.

Allan Bloom. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. p. 37.

Lawrence Kushner, "'Our Town'," in I'm God; You're Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego. Jewish Lights Pub, 2010.

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (1949) Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2008 (third edition). p. 18.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Writing what you don't know

"There are only two or three human stories," said Willa Cather, "and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before." When a story is told enough, it becomes a "ritual of truth," to use Thomas Dumm's phrase. He wrote that "democracy itself depends upon the continuing and autonomous iteration and reiteration of the meaning of words, sentences, paragraphs, and fragments. Instead of reaching final conclusions, perhaps we would do better to think in terms of the rituals of truth that govern our lives together and apart, truths that are radically historical in character." Why isn't a truth-ritual a final conclusion? Because a truth-ritual is a story, and stories contain unresolved ideas. Joan Didion wrote: "The idea that fiction has certain irreducible ambiguities seemed never to occur to these women, nor should it have, for fiction is in most ways hostile to ideology." Those unresolved ideas are why the stories repeat as if they'd never happened before, to answer Willa Cather's question.

Arthur Herzog explained C. Wright Mills' use of the term "sponge words," meaning words that are vague and flexible.

The verbal concoctions dripping from our lips can easily lead to illusion and error, and result in the inflamed rhetoric and unceasing cant of our day. Words are means of doing things, and chaos in language brings chaos in deed.

* * *

Let us take an example from business. As a red-blooded American businessman, you might say (in fact, you do say) that the American business system is historically unique. But you also claim that free enterprise is natural to human beings. Logically, it is impossible to have it both ways. Either free enterprise as practiced here is unique, in which case it can hardly be called natural, or it is natural, in which case it is not unique. Rather than facing up to the contradiction, the temptation is to summon what the sociologist C. Wright Mills called sponge words — such as "freedom" — which soak up the inconsistency.

Iris Murdoch said that we should strive for more "verbal precision" since it is through language that we are able to reveal truth. To deliberately strive for precision is good, and to deliberately obfuscate to gain power is evil. (Note the distinction between the idea that truth is revealed and that, as suggested earlier, it is created through ritual.)

Words constitute the ultimate texture and stuff of our moral being, since they are the most refined and delicate and detailed, as well as the most universally used and understood of the symbolisms whereby we express ourselves into existence.

We become spiritual animals when we become verbal animals. The fundamental distinctions can only be made in words. Words are spirit. Of course eloquence is no guarantee of goodness, and an inarticulate man can be virtuous. But the quality of a civilization depends upon its ability to discern and reveal truth and this depends upon the scope and purity of its language.

Any dictator attempts to degrade the language because this is a way to mystify. And many of the quasi-automatic operations of capitalist industrial society tend also toward mystification and the blunting of verbal precision.

"Every story arises out of perplexity," said Manohar Shyam Joshi:

"I started writing and found that composing a story about perplexity was itself a perplexing and troubling thing, partly because perplexity is beyond words and partly because words themselves produce perplexity. Even by being written down, no final form and no fixed denouement could be given the story of the perplexity of Hariya Hercules. Every story arises out of perplexity and it is the responsibility of every story to explain that perplexity in the idiom of everyday language. But where in the idiom of everyday language is there any scope for perplexity?"

Mo Willems said:

“I learned that I love writing for kids because you don’t have to deal with cultural modifiers. I’m just writing about emotions. I like to say: ‘Love, jealousy, hatred, wanting to drive a bus — the fundamental, core things.’ As I’ve evolved, I’ve started to realize that every book that I write is a philosophical question that I don’t know the answer to. And therefore it interests me. If I know the answer, I won’t make a book out of it.”

This drive to explain the perplexity is a drive to transform mere data into usable information. “Many people think all written words and numbers are information," said Richard Saul Wurman, "but if they don’t inform — if you do not understand them — they are data, not information.”

A novel by Sharad P. Paul poses this question: "This is the paradox of journalism. If it is all about uncovering the truth, then why are their newspaper articles called 'articles'? Sometimes I have found that truth can be like one of those Russian dolls. You know the ones I mean, the ones with sequentially smaller dolls inside larger ones. Sometimes you have to open many dolls before you find the real one." Uncovering the truth is difficult because people hide it. As Julie Jensen put it: "Now a human truth and also a character truth: Characters, like most people, almost never tell the truth. Sometimes they're protecting themselves, sometimes they're manipulating others, sometimes they've got a skewed vision of the world. And sometimes they're just polite and go along when someone else seems to know more." People's truth-telling is often confined to private journals, which are, themselves, written in "ambiguous language" to maintain privacy. One of Amin Maalouf's fictional characters said:

"But sometimes I ask myself: why keep a diary, and in this ambiguous language, when I know no one will ever read it? When in fact I don’t even want anyone to read it? I do it precisely because it helps me to clarify my thoughts and memories without having to tell my travelling companions about them.

Other people write as they speak. I write as I stay silent."

Sources

Willa Cather, quoted in the Ithaca, NY Journal, quoted in The Week, Feb. 11, 2011, p. 21.

Thomas Dumm. Loneliness as a Way of Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008. p. 34.

Joan Didion. The White Album (1979). New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990. p. 112.

Arthur Herzog. The B.S. Factor: The Theory and Technique of Faking It in America. (1973) Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books Inc., 1974. p. 22.

Iris Murdoch, reported in The Times. Quoted in Arthur Herzog. The B.S. Factor: The Theory and Technique of Faking It in America. (1973) Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books Inc., 1974. p. 202.

Manohar Shyam Joshi. The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules. Translated from the Hindi by Robert E. Hueckstedt. New Delhi, India: Penguin, 2009. p. 154.

“Thinking like a child.” Mo Willems, as told to Visi Tilak. Boston Globe Magazine. June 14, 2015. p. 10.

Richard Saul Wurman, interviewed by Nadine Epstein, “In Search of the God of Understanding.” Moment Magazine, Sept/Oct 2013, p. 31.

Sharad P. Paul. Cool Cut. London: Picador, 2007. p. 145.

"Playwriting Quick and Dirty." Julie Jensen. Printed in The Writer's Handbook, 1998 Edition. Ed. Sylvia K. Burack. Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1997. p. 422.

Amin Maalouf, Balthasar's Odyssey (2000) Translated from the French by Barbara Bray. New York: Arcade, 2002. p. 50.