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Weltschmerz

I wanted to post this as a comment on onemonkey‘s post about cool german words but i couldn’t get it to work so…

Weltschmerz, literally “world-pain”
[OED] ‘A weary or pessimistic feeling about life; an apathetic or vaguely yearning attitude’

What is power

Something about Leunig at his best leaves me speechless. It’s the expression of that idea, but without leaving me any referrent I could pass on to anyone else. I’m left, dumb, pointing, mouthing “look! look! That’s it!”

Make good art

Some thoughts from a speech by Neil Gaiman:

Ignore all advice.

In my experience, most interesting art gets made by people who don’t know the rules, and have no idea that certain things simply aren’t done: so they do them. Transgress. Break things. Have too much fun.

Another piece of advice:

I’ve learned over the years that everything is more or less the same amount of work, so you may as well set your sights high and try and do something really cool.

post-text is pre-modern

It occurs to me that the post-modernist critics, with their obsession with text, are in fact profoundly modern. Treating words as objects, rather than events, analysing language as if it had some meaning in-itself, rather than as a dynamic relation to the world. Just like the literalists, the fundamentalists and their holy texts, the unreformed scientists and their static truths.

And before you say it, the more I hear the insistence that words are multiplicitious, the more i hear the binaries deconstructed, the more hollow it sounds. Such ardent disbelief in words feels too utterly entangled in the world of written words to escape – back to or onward to – the world of words as voiced actions.

Unquiet emptiness (in image and words)

I went to the Edward Hopper exhibition at the Tate Modern on saturday. The unquiet emptiness of his paintings reminded me of this poem by Leonard Cohen

What I am doing here

I do not know if the world has lied
I have lied
I do not know if the world has conspired against love
I have conspired against love
The atmosphere of torture is no comfort
I have tortured
Even without the mushroom cloud
still I would have hated
Listen
I would have done the same things
even if there were no death
I will not be held up like a drunkard
under the cold tap of facts
I refuse the universal alibi

Like an empty telephone booth passed at night
and remembered
like mirrors in a movie palace lobby consulted
only on the way out
like a nymphomaniac who binds a thousand
into strange brotherhood
I wait
for each of you to confess.

Science and Poetry

corante.com/loom on science, language, and ‘the reptilian brain’

The words we use, even in passing, to describe genes or brains or evolution can lock us into a view of nature that may be meaningful or misleading.

The brain suffers from plenty of bad language….[In Alchemy of the Mind, Ackerman] indulges in this sort of bad language a lot. One example: she loves referring to our “reptile brain,” as if there was a nub of unaltered neurons sitting at the core of our heads driving our basic instincts. The reality of the brain–and of evolution–is far more complex. The brain of reptilian forerunners of mammals was the scaffolding for a new mammal brain; the old components have been integrated so intimately with our “higher” brain regions that there’s no way to distinguish between the two in any fundamental way. Dopamine is an ancient neurotransmitter that provides a sense of anticipation and reward to other animals, including reptiles. But our most sophisticated abilities for learning abstract rules, carried out in our elaborate prefrontal cortex, depend on rewards of dopamine to lay down the proper connections between neurons. There isn’t a new brain and an old brain working here–just one system. Yet, despite all this, it remains seductive to use a phrase like “reptile brain.” It conjures up lots of meanings. Ackerman floods her book with such language, which I grouse about other bad language in my review.

Which makes me wonder, as a science writer myself: is all poetry is ultimately dangerous? Does scientific understanding inevitably get abandoned as we turn to the juicy figure of speech?

I say ‘no’. All language is imprecise to some degree. This is what gives it power- without imprecision you couldn’t have generality. To try and cut out all figures of speech would be to buy into the idea that perfect truth can be expressed in language, which is the sort of absolutist manifesto that leads to fundamentalisms of all sorts (including scienticism).

A good figure of speech can convey whole worlds of understanding, as well as being part of the fun that you need to motivate you to keep reading. Precision in scientific understanding is like democracy – something to always strive towards without fooling yourself that you’ve ever completely arrived.

So, yes poetry is dangerous, but so is trying do without it- any dealings with the ostrich-literalism of Creationists will demonstrate that.

Damn, I’m so liberal sometimes i make me sick.

The real problem with poetry is that people are given more license to get away with complete nonsense. But then the problem isn’t poetry – it’s nonsense.

Writing tactics

I’m doing a lot of writing at the moment, here’s some things I remind myself – advice I’ve gathered along the way. I’m a big fan of advice, so thanks to all those who’ve offered it.

These are more tactics than principles or admonishments. I don’t always follow them, but sometimes they really help. Oh, and it’s non-fiction i’m writing in case anyone doesn’t know.

  • Andrew passed on the most important thing, as said by Kingsley Amis- The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of your trousers to the seat of your chair.
  • Dan Box said- Write in two-sentence paragraphs. Try it – you’re forced to structure your story so the direction is obvious, and structure your sentences so they are concise.
  • Tim Radford from the Guardian told me- Make the first sentence a summary of the whole article. This is for readers who don’t have any motivation except curiousity to keep reading what you’ve written . The newspaper story is top heavy, designed to be cut from the bottom- don’t have any surprises in the story outside the first paragraph, or outside the first few lines if you can help it.
  • I discovered the other day- When you’ve rewritten and rewritten until you can’t see the text anymore, put it in another application or change the font or style (or both). The superficial change to the appearence of the text really helps you read it again with something like full attention.
  • Mrs Ferris, my A-level history teacher said the first sentence of each paragraph summarises and defines what will be in that paragraph. Not only does this help orientation for people skimming what you’ve written, but it helps you structure it too. Good when writing for readers who don’t have much time (ie always).

  • Petty, unoriginal griefs

    Neil has some thoughts on The Black Rider:

    *what is it* I’m actually enjoying about this? It’s not the emotional resonance of well-drawn characters or the powerful realism of great acting or the engaging originality of cleverly-devised plots- I guess it’s the triumph of style over substance in both cases, but what style 😉 I also wondered whether one of the reason burlesque does work is because its cliche-laden expressions of cheap sentiment are actually a more realistic representation of a life characterised by the mundane scope of petty, unoriginal griefs, loves and yearnings than the grand passions and higher purposes portrayed elsewhere, but by treating it all with such irony manages to get away with the dramatic equivalent of adolescent poetry- expressing feelings in cloying and cliched terms that are utterly heartfelt and engulfing.

    The banality of evil

    Just finished:

    Hannah Arendt (1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem, A report on the Banality of Evil

    The historical complement to Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority. Like Primo Levi said,

    They were made of the same cloth as we were, they were average human beings, averagely intelligent, averagely wicked: save the exceptions, they were not monsters, they had our faces…

    The thing that stood out was the the way the final solution was resisted by a few couragous individuals and by a handful of countries (Denmark particularly) that found the strength to say ‘no’. And in those countries where dissent was expressed more or less openly, the majority of the population – even anti-semites and Nazi soldiers – could be carried along with the resistence to the holocaust

    … “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere

    A bookish personality



    You’re Brave New World!
    by Aldous Huxley
    With an uncanny ability for predicting the future, you are a true psychic. You can see how the world will change and illuminate the fears of future generations. In the world to come, you see the influence of the media, genetic science, drugs, and class warfare. And while all this might make you happy, you claim the right to be unhappy. While pregnancy might seem painful, test tube babies scare you most. You are obsessed with the word "pneumatic".

    Take the Book Quiz
    at the Blue Pyramid.

    (via Neil)

    What’s wrong with mob rule?

    Just finished David Mamet’s A Whore’s Profession: Notes and Essays and one essay Poll Finds started me thinking about problems with democracy and choice (a hopeless task!).

    We make awful choices as collectives – look at the newspapers we choose, the television we watch, the music we buy, the fast-food chains we make rich. But I have faith that we’re better than that. So why do we allow ourselves to be sold it? I’m convinced that part of the answer is the difference between what we’d really like and what we’re willing to put up with; Another part is the increasing size of markets; and partly it’s a culture of hype and fear that has chosen to put quantity over quality at ever turn (or am i starting to sound like a hysterical lefty?). But here’s another point, from Mamet, a bizarrely conservative liberal…

    The viscious aspect of the poll is that it submerges the individual’s responsibility of choice…the person who answers the poll has no responsibility; they are asked how they feel at any given moment, and the very inducement to answer is this: you will have no responsibility for how these statistics are used: you are free, you are, in fact encouraged to answer as self-interestedly as you wish: for a moment there are no restrictions on your libido.

    …As pollings has replaced voting as the method of electing our officials, our capacity to stand alone, to think alone, to be content while being in the wrong has all but evaporated….our acceptance of the poll is our rejection of our own thoughts or ideas because to hold them in opposition to ‘majority opinion’ is not as important as to be thought ‘right.’ And there we have American Fascism, in which we become our own dictator, and have forced on ourselves the will, not of others, but of the lowest aspect of ourselves; and this slavery has been forced on us not by the threat of death or torture, but by the threat of the momentary discomfort of being in the wrong.

    Given what we know about the power of social influence we should expect essentially arbitrary, but majority, positions to gain strength. An obsession with polling can on exacerbate (more iterations!) this feedback between perceived group position and individual standing. (see also Arrow’s Possibility Theorum; via Crooked Timber).

    Can we conclude that there are situations where too much information/communication is (democratically) a bad thing? Is this one of the points where the libertarian (and, incidentally standard economic) theoretical notion of the individual breaks down in the face of human socio-cognitive biases?

    What should i do with my life?

    Two quotes from Po Bronson’s What Should I Do With My Life. An annoyingly complacent piece of American self-help literature on the one hand, but on the other I’m a sucker for bite-sized wisdom…

    Three guys laying bricks are asked why they’re doing it. The first guy says, ‘I’m doing it for the wages.’ The second guy says, ‘I’m doing it to support my family’. The third guys says, ‘I’m helping to build a cathedral.’

    and

    …it is likely that we fall in love with people who bring out the part of ourselves that we’d like to see more of.

    Writing for radio

    I normally think of myself- in a rather surly way- as a non-fiction man, but something obviously snapped recently and i’ve decided to write a 15 minute radio play. I think the turning point was listening to something on Radio 4 and thinking “I could do better than this”. Time to prove it! But first, some preparation.

    The BBC – of course – has some good resources for writers in their Writersroom. Including this fantastic tutorial by Jon Ronson on finding and following a story (he mentions that being scruffy can be useful. Score!)

    The BBC gets 10,000 scripts a year, so better get the formatting right and submit it correctly

    There’s so much advice on how to write that i decided to read it after i’d actually got the thing written (although finding out that 15 minutes is very approximately 2000 words was good to know). I might still try and get David Mamet’s Writing for Radio (in A Whore’s Profession, 1994) because a friend recommended it and Mamet’s a god.

    The cacophony of instruction on the Craft reminded me of this article in the Independent from a few weeks ago which busted a few myths about the hoops you need to jump through in preparing your script for Hollywood

    This is the secret of how to be a screenwriter. You have to set two tabs. You set one tab setting an inch or 2.5cm from the left margin. You set the other tab a couple of inches or 5cm in. The first tab marks where the dialogue starts. And the second tab is for the name of the character speaking (always in capitals).

    That’s it. Apparently.

    Reminiscent in spirit to my favourite quote about writing, by Kingsley Amis

    The Art of Writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair