Year of Short Fiction Part 7: Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri, is one of those collections of stories I’ve heard about for years. It came out in 1999 and won the Pulitzer Prize. I think I dragged my feet on it because of the Oprah endorsement and the fact that I assumed I knew it already (i.e. it’s just another of those MFA story collection clones).

Today, I want to dig in to the first story in the collection, “A Temporary Matter.” It kind of blew me away. This is the type of story one should spend a lot of time understanding if one wants to do short fiction well. It packs a serious emotional punch but also has a ton of things to notice on subsequent readings.

WARNING: The entire story will be revealed. If you want to experience it as intended, read it first. The obvious Google search is your friend if you don’t have a copy.

Short stories tend to focus really, really hard on a single moment: think Joyce’s Dubliners. This is because if one is showing instead of telling, there just isn’t room to do anything else. Lahiri builds to this moment in “A Temporary Matter” with a lot of backstory, and to do this she has to “tell.” So it will be interesting to see how she does this in an engaging way.

The structure of the story is also really important. It jumps around in time, and this is done so that certain emotional reveals happen where they need to happen. Here’s the structure labeled in a way that can be referred to (the whole thing is told in past tense limited third person).

Present 1
Past 1
Present 1
Present 2
Past 2
(Present 2)
Past 3
Present 2
Present 3
Sequence of Past events revealed
Final Present moment

Here’s a brief summary. Present 1: Shoba and Shukumar receive a notice that the electric company will shut the power off for an hour each night to fix some power lines (a temporary matter). Past 1: We get a semi-flashback to Shukumar finding out that Shoba went into early labor while he was away at an academic conference. The baby dies, and Shoba resents Shukumar for not being there during the horrific experience.

Present 2: The first blackout night comes up and Shukumar makes dinner. Past 2: There’s a brief description of how they’ve developed nightly routines of avoiding each other. It’s brilliant how none of these flashbacks feel like flashbacks. It’s more like Shukumar is having idle thoughts while cooking. This layers in the backstory more naturally than a true jarring flashback. Past 3: We also get thoughts about Shoba’s mother coming to visit and help after the miscarriage.

Present 2: The real content of the story begins at this first blackout dinner. Under the safety of darkness, they decide to play a game where they each reveal a secret they’ve never told the other before. The secrets start out minor: cheating on a test years ago, getting drunk in the middle of the day once.

Present 3: The game continues each night, and they start to be able to talk to each other again. They start to fall in love again and move through the grief. They even make love. Then final night comes, and the power company finishes early. They have light.

They still play the game, because each has saved their bombshell for the final night. Shoba reveals that she has signed a lease to an apartment, and she’s moving out. Shukumar reveals that he actually made it back from the conference and held the baby after the miscarriage. The ending is left open.

As you can see, the structure is quite complicated, but it must be this way for the most emotional resonance. Let’s look at how these “flashbacks” work by taking a passage from the first one.

Each time he thought of that moment, the last moment he saw Shoba pregnant, it was the cab he remembered most, a station wagon, painted red with blue lettering. It was cavernous compared to their own car. Although Shukumar was six feet tall, with hands too big ever to rest comfortably in the pockets of his jeans, he felt dwarfed in the back seat. As the cab sped down Beacon street, he imagined a day when he and Shoba might need to buy a station wagon of their own, to cart their children back and forth from music lessons and dentist appointments.

There’s two things that make this fit into the story so well. First, it meanders like thought. So instead of jerking you to another time and place with a sudden hard break, it lets Shukumar’s thoughts wander, as if he’s actually standing in the present still, thinking about it.

The other thing is that it sticks to one important detail and drills into it: the car. At first it’s just the physical description. But then it becomes an emotional description. It’s not a detail for detail’s sake. This detail is important. He thinks about how he and Shoba would need a car like that for their future children. He has no idea that his wife is about to lose the baby.

Lahiri also lets Shukumar’s present thoughts bleed into this passage by indicating “the last moment he saw Shoba pregnant…”

The title is very clever. I don’t want to dwell on it too much, but it draws attention to how many of the disparate threads weave together. The lights going out is a temporary matter. The game is a temporary matter. We come to believe that the title is secretly about the rocky place of the relationship being a temporary matter. They’re moving through it and falling in love again.

But then it smacks us in the end. It’s actually their relationship which is temporary. Obviously, it’s easy to read too much into this, because everything in life is temporary. So the title would draw these themes out of any story.

There’s also a lot of interesting symbolic stuff going on. For example, the darkness each night doesn’t merely give them safety to speak their minds. It also represents that both are in the dark about the interior states of the other. It’s not an accident that Lahiri cuts the darkness short on the fifth night so that when the truth is revealed they are in light.

This is what makes the story so brilliant. One can read it without noticing any of this stuff and have a serious emotional reaction to it but then read it again and notice how all these details reveal who the characters really are and the conflicting themes and the symbols.

Lessons in the Fundamentals of Writing, Part 1

I have a Kindle Unlimited subscription, so I start a lot of self-published books. Many of these are bad (don’t take this the wrong way: 90% of everything is bad). I don’t want to criticize specific people or their writing, but I really want to dig into some of the fundamental problems with some passages I’ve found out in the published world.

I’ve decided that I’m going to take real passages and change the verbs and nouns and names (but in a way to not create a new problem). This is so you can’t go find the passages easily. Most of the time proper grammar and so on is used. It’s even possible they hired an editor. The issue is that when certain fundamental problems exist, the work isn’t ready for an editor.

Here is the opening passage to a novel. Sorry for how long this excerpt is, but context is needed to understand the fundamental problem:

A 23 year old girl named Veronica who had just ended her relationship with her boyfriend found herself alone. After a few years of being with him, she decided to follow her instincts and have a relationship with an older man. Veronica had always been with people her own age but she secretly found them immature.

One day in the afternoon Veronica was bored at her house and decided to go out and visit some friends to chill and have some fun. When she got to their house, they were talking to a coworker named Sam …

We could take a few directions with this. First off, every single one of those sentences is telling the reader what happened instead of showing it. In addition, most of what we’re told is completely irrelevant. An agent or publisher wouldn’t have to read any further to know it was a hard reject.

It might be instructive to see how to change some of this to show more and tell less. Let’s do that for a moment, but there’s actually a more fundamental problem than that.

First, let’s think about what’s actually important in the first sentence. The age we can later infer. The relationship ending is inferred by the last part of the sentence. Already we could make a much stronger opening by changing that to:

Veronica found herself alone.

This conveys the same information in a much less clunky way. Strings of glue words like “who had just” should always throw up red flags. The rest of that opening paragraph is also unimportant. We can show all of it better through action or dialogue.

“One day in the afternoon” and “was bored at her house” can be converted to showing. Never say “one day.” However you proceed, it will be assumed that it is a day (unless it’s night, of course).

The heat of the afternoon sun beat on Veronica’s skin as she lazily flipped through the latest Cosmopolitan.

Now we’ve given the character some action that slips in the time of day and shows her being bored. With specific details like the magazine title, we’re developing characterization. Imagine how you’d feel if instead that had said Popular Mechanics or Harper’s. It’s already infinitely better, but if we try to convert the next part, we’re going to run up against the more fundamental problem I alluded to.

There’s no good way to transition to the upcoming house party scene. We have to spend a full scene with her being bored at her house, or we should probably skip it. Here’s the fundamental lesson: make sure the story starts in the right place.

The original first paragraph is backstory and told motivation. There’s no need for either. The “being bored” is irrelevant. This novel actually begins at this party scene where she’s going to try to start dating this older man.

I tend to think of novels having two good opening strategies. One is the poetic scene setting or character description. I know that’s gone quite a bit out of favor recently, but most of the masters did this. This sets a patient tone for the novel. Here’s the opening to Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon (Malazan, Book 1):

The stains of rust seemed to map blood seas on the black, pocked surface of Mock’s Vane. A century old, it squatted on the point of an old pike that had bolted to the outer top of the Hold’s wall. Monstrous and misshapen, it had been cold-hammered into the form of a winged demon, teeth bared in a leering grin, and was tugged and buffeted in squealing protest with every gust of wind.

The inventive description draws you right in. There’s no need for action because so much of the descriptors paint in an active way: stains, blood, squat, bolt, monstrous, demon, teeth bared, leering, and more. This is all just a description of the setting!

We could easily do this with the example we’re trying to fix. We could dwell on the house for a while before getting to this other idea:

Fragments of sunlight cut through the clouded sky to illuminate a small bungalow on a hill. Veronica glanced out the window at her garden—at how the raindrops refracted the light on the silvery wormwood leaves. The storm had broken. Three days of being cooped up was about all she could take.

This is getting more advanced than I want this “fundamentals” series to be. Here’s the idea.

If Veronica is sad about the breakup, we can symbolically illustrate this with the storm. Now that she’s about to go to this party, the sun coming out foreshadows things getting better. She’s coming out of the post-breakup depression (and we even worked in why she was bored since this was so important to merit mention to the original author!).

So if we absolutely must start the novel bored at the house, we should use inventive description to paint vivid pictures and draw the reader in like this. But honestly I feel quite strongly that this “bored at the house” idea was merely lazy writing and not the true beginning.

The more common advice these days is to start in media res, meaning in the middle of some action. But in the case of the example we’re trying to fix, there’s no need for actual “action.” All this means for us is to start where the actual story starts. All the stuff that came before it was unnecessary. It will be inferred later or was too unimportant to care about.

Veronica circled the party in a slow and deliberate prowl. She watched Sam as he talked to people she didn’t know. He had a streak of silver in his brown hair, a hefty square jaw covered in stubble, and those piercing green eyes. She thought to herself: age is just a number.

Oh. What in the world is going on here? We know the man is older by the physical description, but leaving what exactly their age difference is creates mystery. We don’t know whether to be intrigued or disturbed yet. She’s on the prowl but why? It’s the action of the scene right up front.

And don’t think that a good editor will tell you any of this (they’ll be thinking it, though!). Editors can only fix so much. If there’s a true fundamental problem like this one, it requires a rewrite. Editors edit. A rewrite is part of “writing” and beyond the scope of their job. They might be generous and write things like “telly,” but you’ll have to understand that what they mean is what’s in this post.

Talamir, Chapter 1

My next book, Talamir, is up for pre-order today. Here’s the first chapter in full. It’s available for Kindle through Amazon and will only be $0.99 during pre-order this next week. More details: here.

Enjoy!

A shard pressed into Drystn’s back as he struggled through the cramped tunnel. The cavern at the other end taunted him, and he squirmed to get through to it. If only it wasn’t digging so deeply, he could make one last hard push. The blood rushed to his head from the semi-vertical positioning of his body, and Drystn chastised himself for not turning back at the first sign of trouble.

Now he had no choice. He braced his feet against the side of the tunnel and thrust his body forward, somersaulting into the large, cavernous opening. A sharp pain arced across his back from the scratch, but it didn’t feel serious.

The cavern was full of the shimmering crystal deposits: mianl. These caves were where all of them formed, but he had never thought about what caused them to grow from the rock. Grow? Was that even the right word?

He heard the faint sound of running water in the distance. The enclave should have been dark, but the mianl gave off a delicate glow. Spior. He wouldn’t need to waste his torch yet. Drystn worried that he should have encountered the herb before now; the rare specimen had all but vanished from its cliffside existence. He’d need to find the water outlet for a better chance. He walked to the jagged wall and ran his hand along the mianl deposits. Not having trained as a mianlist, he could only guess at all their uses.

Drystn sensed the change before the attack came. The subtle tremor under his feet warned him of the inevitable. Like all Talamirians, his life of quakes attuned him to the signs. His legs discerned the pre-quake as naturally as his lungs breathed air. He glanced up to check how safe he would be: not very. Large stalactites hung like a torture device from the ceiling. They receded into the darkness, obscuring their true size. If the quake was large, he would die.

The beginning tremors shifted to a heavy shake. Drystn rolled to the ground out of habit; it would be safer than falling. One stalactite broke loose, but he had kept his eye on them in case this happened. The spike plummeted at his face with alarming speed, too fast to get out of the way.

Drystn willed his body sideways and rolled hard. It shattered upon hitting the ground, and a fragment shot into his arm. He howled into the emptiness. The sharp sting pulsed on his shoulder, and a trickle of blood ran along his arm. The quake ended as fast as it began. They were all like this now: short but intense.

Drystn stood, and brushed the debris off his skin. The puncture in his arm felt worse than it looked, and he decided it could wait until he returned to the school. He looked back to make sure the quake hadn’t knocked anything into the tunnel—his only means of return. He didn’t think the damage would add difficulty at other, clearer parts of the cave, so he turned toward the sound of the water. It had to be nearby, which meant the herb couldn’t be far either.

He wandered forward and took care with the fallen rock to not twist an ankle. Within a hundred steps, it came into view. A small waterfall emptied into a pool. Drystn glanced up to see where the water came from but could only see more darkness. The mianl shards weren’t growing this close to the water, so everything had a dark veil pulled over it. At the pool’s edge he bent down to examine the ground. He slid along the edge of the water, hunting. The crouched walk hurt his legs. It had to be here. If it wasn’t here, it no longer existed.

Drystn dragged his hand along the dirt, feeling where he couldn’t see. He scraped up against something fuzzy. Relief flowed through him. It had to be slaitn, the herb for which he looked. He plucked it and pulled it to his face for closer examination.

Drystn had trained as an herbalist for years. His experienced eyes scanned for the identifying patterns: five petals, hairy underside, ribbed stem; check, check, check. He carefully went through all the secondary defining features. The trip had taken too long and was too dangerous for him to make a mistake in identifying the herb. There would only be one final exam, and he wanted to do his best. If he didn’t pass this year, he would have to go through a whole extra year of training.

He placed the herb into the small pouch sewn into his gray herbalist trainee robe. He only needed one more herb to make the tea. It grew in abundance near the school, so all he had to do was survive the journey back.

The return went smoother. It was easier to traverse the tunnel now that he had been through it once. The quake must have knocked rocks loose, widening the diameter. He also didn’t have to keep his eye out for the herb. The other one would be easy to find along the Ahm River at the school. A light appeared at the end of the tunnel, and Drystn was glad to know he hadn’t wasted all his daylight.

The journey down the cliffs still left some danger. Mianlists made the trip all the time to gather their materials from the caves. He had only made this trip a few times in his entire life. The herbs that grew in the caves were few. Before beginning the descent, he looked out at Talamir.

From this height he could make out the entire world. Cliffs and mountains formed a large circle around everything. Three rivers flowed from the mountains to the center of the circle and emptied into Lake Uisc. This partitioned Talamir into three, equally sized regions.

Around and above the lake lay Talamir Center, a large circular building used for government matters. The lake was about two-day’s walk. Drystn had never visited it, because he left his village at ten to go to school at the end of the Ahm River. Children with the Talent had no choice in the matter.

Two-hundred years ago, the founders built the school on the outer edge of Talamir because of its proximity to the resources needed to learn the three pillars of spior: herbalism, mianlism, and soilism. There were a few cavern systems in the cliffs at other locations, but these were the easiest to get to by far.

Drystn longed to live in the heart of Talamir City, but he knew he would most likely return to the village of his parents and become the resident herbalist. It was tradition. Outside the dense city center were rings of scattered settlements. Drystn could make out a clear First Ring, Second Ring, and Third Ring, but the rings became sparser the farther out they went. The outer Ninth Ring contained the school as well as some less savory villages closer to the other two rivers.

He turned back toward the caves, squatted, and reached his foot over the ledge. The first drop wasn’t far, but he had to be careful to stay close to the red rocks. Each narrow ledge posed a chance for disaster. Once he got into a pattern, the activity had a calming effect. Squat, drop, squat, drop. Part of his training involved learning this skill, since the occasional journey to a system of caves would be a necessary part of any herbalist’s job.

At last, Drystn breathed a sigh of relief as his boots touched the solid ground of Talamir. Only then did he think about how terrible it would have been for the quake to have happened on his ascent or descent of the cliffs to the caves.

No one at the school would have paid the quake any attention. The banality of yet another quake had become a standard part of life. Drystn only noticed because of his precarious location. Dusk settled, and he hurried to make it back to school before true darkness arrived.

As he walked, he glimpsed something move out of the corner of his eye. He snapped his head over to get a better look, but it vanished—as if looking caused it to disappear. Phantom spior. Once one developed the ability to see spior, these phantom images were a common occurrence. Drystn shuddered. He hated being watched only to have the watcher disappear when looked at.

He tried to console himself with the fact that these phantom images appeared to everyone, but this somehow only made it creepier. Something didn’t sit right about the stock explanation that tufts of spior collected together for a second before dispersing to a more normal distribution.

The familiar stone castle grew in size as he got closer. The stone was typical Second Age construction. From a distance, it had a majestic look to it. Four pillars rose out of the four corners of the building. These were used for residences. Three for the three schools of students and one for the professors. Classrooms lined the boxy exterior, and a large room in the middle served as the great hall.

Halfway back, Drystn stopped to light the torch he brought. He picked up the pace, and returned to the castle well before dinner. There would be time to finish the exam tonight. Up close, the building lost its grandeur. The weather had worn the stone, and many parts looked as if they were ready to collapse. This was in stark contrast to the mianl buildings of the First Age, which showed no wear.

Drystn walked to the river bank and located the second herb he needed. He placed this in his pouch and began the trek to his teacher’s office. He was so close to graduating and now shuttered at the thought of the unnecessary risk he had taken for the exam. The spell would be very hard and delicate. The other students in his class had chosen the easier method.

Drystn’s legs felt weak as he made his way to his room to gather the necessary supplies. He already had the herbs and the flint for fire. He picked up his personal brewer. The contraption looked like two stone cups stacked on top of each other, separated by a small space. The bottom had a candle with a special wick that burned with strong consistency. The top could then be used to brew a single cup of tea. He had also prepared the distilled water he needed the day before.

Drystn went back into the hall toward the offices. Each final exam would comprise a single brew and a long oral exam to accompany it. When he had left to go to the cavern, three people stood outside Professor Cynwr’s office. Only five people were up for graduating as herbalists this year, so he knew everyone had taken the easy method of using local herbs.

He approached the large door and couldn’t bring himself to knock. He brought his hand up, and it stalled. Drystn watched it shake in disbelief. Eight years of his life had been spent here. Now it was about to come to a close. He didn’t want that just yet. This was his home. All of his friends were here.

A gentle female voice called out, muffled by the door.

“Drystn, you may enter. I haven’t got all night.”

Drystn opened the door, and a pungent odor filled his nostrils. Of course, his fellow students would have needed to brew boldh root. He felt bad for Cynwr sitting in this smell all day.

She often wore her hair up in a tight bun, and it looked strange and sad as it hung loose around her shoulders, like the mist coming off the Ahn waterfall. It must have been years since she had it cut, for it almost touched the ground while she sat. Cynwr usually had a wild and disorganized office that gave Drystn an unsettled feeling. He liked neatness. He half-expected to knock over a stack of papers or books any time he opened her door.

For the exam, the office had been thoroughly cleaned. She left nothing extraneous on the ground or the desk. The cleanliness startled Drystn. There was nothing quite like being surprised to start an exam.

She said, “I see you finally decided to show up.”

Drystn relaxed as Cynwr gave him a kind smile. She had taught him for eight years. She was on his side. He realized he had nothing to worry about.

“Um. Sorry. I journeyed to the caverns to get slaitn for the tea.”

Cynwr’s expression changed to one of being impressed.

“Let’s begin then. First, start by telling me the tea you are to make and why you think it would cure brotl.”

A chair rested in front of the desk for the examinees to use, but Drystn remained at his feet and paced. Pictures formed in his mind of the herbs as he said them, and he became so lost in his thoughts that he temporarily forgot it was an exam. The scenario shifted to any of the hundred times he had come to office hours and talked through his various ideas with her.

Drystn said, “At first, I thought this was easy. I could use four herbs to cure each of the four aspects of brotl. But then I realized that slaitn takes care of two and graecl takes care of the other two. I chose these ingredients, even though it would be more work to obtain and will be more difficult to brew properly.

“This is because of the simple rule of herbology that the more ingredients you use, the less potent each will be. Brotl is a serious illness, so I wanted the tea to be as potent as possible. Using four herbs could compromise the health of the patient.”

Cynwr said, “Very good. You seem to be the only one to have chosen this path. It is certainly the most correct one, and the one I would have done if faced with a real patient with the illness. Of course, I would have sent someone else to get the slaitn, but you don’t have that luxury. Let’s see if you can actually brew it properly.”

Cynwr leaned back in her chair as if settling in for a long process. Drystn lit his brewer and poured the distilled water into the top cup until it reached the first lip. If he filled it too much, it would overflow when he placed the herbs in. He wasn’t sure how much to explain, so he said, “This is distilled water, because the more pure the water the more—”

“—Okay. That is Year One stuff. I know you understand that. You can move on to the specifics of this particular tea.”

He continued to work. He set the two herbs on the empty desk next to the pot of grass. Cynwr had informed the class that this would be provided. Since grass was so abundant, there would be no need to test if students could find and identify it.

Drystn cleared his mind and reached for the spior within the grass. Once he sensed it, he latched on and pulled. Over the years, this had become second-nature, but it had taken him nearly a year to get his first pull to work. He recalled how scared he had been that maybe he didn’t have the Talent. Maybe they had misidentified him. The spior came free and hovered in a ball in front of him.

Spior could not be seen, but he used this visualization to help keep hold of it. Even holding on tightly, small amounts would escape the ball and return to nature. If he let go, it would all dissipate within seconds. He sensed how much he had, and calculated how much each herb needed.

This delicate calculation was the first dangerous part. If he gave the herb too much spior, it would become dangerously potent: too high a dose. The patient could overdose and die. If he didn’t give it enough, the effect wouldn’t come through. He pushed the appropriate amount of spior into each herb, and then let the rest release.

By the end of the brew, the grass would be dead unless enough had escaped his ball and returned to it. No one understood how spior dissipated back to nature. It just did. That was the way things had always been.

Drystn opened his eyes and looked at the two herbs on the table. They gave off a faint glow, so he knew it had worked. Next, he turned his attention to the water in the brewer. It would be getting close at this point. He placed his head over the cup and watched for the first small bubbles to appear on the bottom.

Cynwr asked, “Can you explain what you’re looking for?”

“Well, unlike the boldh root I smell from the previous exam, slaitn is very delicate. It cannot be directly boiled or it will scald and lose its potency. The healing property must be extracted gently. I’m watching for the first sign of bubbles, at which point I’ll blow out the flame and start the immersion.”

“Very good.”

A bubble appeared, and Drystn blew out the flame. He paused a beat to let the temperature drop for extra caution then put the two herbs in the water. Six minutes later, he served the tea to Cynwr.

Drystn confidently exclaimed, “This should cure brotl.”

She nodded with a smile.

“I agree. Let us proceed with the exam. I know this question is a mere formality, but the final is supposed to be comprehensive. Please recite the laws of spior for me.”

“First: Spior can never be created nor destroyed; it can only be moved from place to place, like with like. Second—”

“—Wait. Like with like. Can you explain that a bit more for me?”

“Yes. It means from herb to herb or from mianl to mianl or from soil to soil. Spior pulled from grass can never be moved to mianl for instance.”

“What about to a person?”

Drystn laughed. Cynwr didn’t look amused.

He put on a serious face and continued, “Sorry. That’s of course what people tried to do a long time ago. If a person with the Talent could pull spior from nature and give it to themselves, they would be able to live forever. Like with like and only between the three focal points. Never person to person.”

“Very good. Continue, please.”

“Second: Spior can only be moved by those trained to do so and born with the Talent. Third: The three focal points of spior are herbs, mianl, and soil. Fourth: Spior is in all things, living and non-living. Fifth: A living body’s spior is released upon death and is spread out in equal parts to all living things. Sixth: The natural life span of a living body is proportional to the amount of spior it contains.”

Cynwr’s expression dropped as Drystn recited the laws. She now had an intense sadness about her. Drystn quickly went over what he had said, nervous that he had made a mistake in the most fundamental of questions. He couldn’t fathom where the mistake had been, because he had been able to recite these laws for years.

She said, “You have made no mistake, but I feel I must tell you something. It only seems right. I have no doubt you will graduate top of your class. But this may not be as good as you think. Every three years, the top three students, one from each discipline, are sent to Talamir Center to work on a major project—”

“—What? I’ve never heard of this.”

Drystn’s heart raced. Talamir Center? A major project? This sounded like a great opportunity and way more exciting than becoming a village herbalist.

Cynwr said, “Shh. Let me finish.” She stood up and walked to the window. Her eyes had glazed over, but she stared out into the darkness anyway. “They don’t want anyone to know about it for some reason. It’s been going on for as long as I’ve been here, and I still have no idea what it is. It’s very secret but presumably very important. It also might be dangerous. I’ve never heard from any of these students again. They basically disappear when they leave.”

The course of the conversation dawned on Drystn.

“Are you saying this is the year? It’s been three years since the last one?”

“Yes. I fear it is.” She turned back from the window and leaned in to Drystn. Her hair flowed onto the desk, and she lowered her voice. “I want to give you the choice, since it seems unfair to force this on someone. If you would like to go live with your family, you can intentionally give some wrong answers. You won’t graduate top of the class, and they’ll take someone else.”

“Isn’t that just as bad though? Then the second person won’t have a choice.”

Cynwr contemplated this before answering.

“That is true.”

She gave no indication that she would say more on the topic. Drystn didn’t know what to do. He had longed to live in the city center all his life. He thought this wasn’t possible, but now the opportunity lay out before him. Still, it came at a cost, and he didn’t know what this cost would be without more details.

Drystn asked, “Do you think the people doing this research are okay? Why did you lose contact?”

“I have no idea. I know that once you find out what they are working on, you will never be allowed to tell anyone about it. They also only want the best and don’t give anyone involved a choice.”

A deep curiosity formed in the pit of Drystn’s stomach. The more he thought about it, the more it grew until his whole body tingled with excitement. He had to know what it was. He wanted to be more objective in this important decision, but he couldn’t overcome the sense that this had to do with the First Age.

He would probably find out what had caused the disappearance of the people from the First Age or at least work on finding out what happened to them. Plus, the city had so much in it compared to the outskirts where his parents lived.

He tried to hide the excitement in his voice, but he knew Cynwr would pick up on it.

He said, “I understand the implications of what I’m about to do.”

The exam proceeded, and Drystn continued to answer each question correctly. He couldn’t tell, but he suspected she had tried to come up with some very difficult and obscure questions to trick him into a wrong answer. Did she know something and not want him to go? Or was it to give him a plausible chance at giving a wrong answer? Each question he answered brought a little more sadness to her eyes.

She finished by saying, “Well, as you know, you’ve not only passed, but you are also the top herbalist this year. You’ve made your own fate. I hope you don’t regret it.”

Drystn had never seen her like this. He turned and left the room in silence. His only thought echoed through his head: What have I done?

talamirfinalcover

Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 3: Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard is one of those postmodernist philosophers that people can name but probably don’t know much about. He’s most famous for his work Simulacra and Simulation, in which he argues we’ve replaced everything real in our society by symbols (more on this later). If you’re thinking of the movie The Matrix, then you’ve understood. That movie gets misattributed to a lot of different philosophers, but the underlying concept is basically a fictionalization of Baudrillard’s ideas.

I thought we’d tackle his paper “The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media” published in New Literary History, Vol 16, No 3. The paper appeared in 1985, and it tackles issues relevant to our current media environment. I thought it’d be interesting to see how it holds up now.

He begins with an observation about the media:

…they are what finally forbids response, what renders impossible any process of exchange (except in the shape of a simulation of a response, which is itself integrated into the process of emission, and that changes nothing in the unilaterality of communication).

In the 80’s, as well as traditional media today, this is certainly true. There’s no way to comment on or engage in a dialogue with the people presenting information on TV or radio or even podcasts or newspapers and blogs with closed comments. Traditionally, media gets to define the conversation, and when there is “response” to what they say, it’s still controlled by them, and they still distribute that response to you.

Baudrillard wants to frame this as a power imbalance. The media have a monopoly on information. When a response is allowed, the exchange of ideas becomes more balanced.

Baudrillard brings up the case of an opinion poll as an example to motivate the next part of the paper. He points out that this distribution of information is merely symbolic of the state of opinion. There is a complicated interaction where the information itself changes opinion, rendering itself obsolete. This type of distribution of information introduces uncertainty on many fronts:

We will never know if an advertisement or opinion poll has had a real influence on individual or collective wills—but we will never know either what would have happened if there had been no opinion poll or advertisement.

Here, I have to say this analysis is a bit dated. This statement was probably accurate in the 80’s, but with Google, and other analytic big data companies, tracking so much of our lives, we can be quite certain if certain advertisements or polls have caused some sort of influence on both individual and collective wills.

This point is mostly not important to the overall thesis of Baudrillard in the article, though. He goes on to make an astute observation that can cause a bit of anxiety if you dwell on it too much. We don’t have a good way to separate reality from the “simulative projection in the media.”

It’s a complicated way to say that we just can’t check a lot of things. If we see on the news that there was a minor earthquake in Japan, we believe it. But we weren’t there. All we get is the simulation of reality as provided by the news. Of course, there are other ways to check that fact by going into public seismic activity records, etc.

But there are other narratives and simulations that are much harder to check, and in any case, we are bombarded by so much information that we don’t have time to check it. We believe the narrative as presented. If we come across a competing narrative, we only become uncertain. It doesn’t actually clarify the situation (here we get back into Lyotard territory).

Baudrillard would later write a book-length analysis of this about the Gulf War (entitled The Gulf War Did Not Take Place) in which he claims that the American public only received propaganda about the war through the media. The war took place, but the simulated reality the public received did not accurately reflect the events that occurred. Moreover, there were pretty much no sources outside this propaganda to learn about the actual events.

We live in an age of hyperinformation, and the more we track how everything is changing, the worse our understanding gets. This isn’t Baudrillard’s wording, but I can see how this makes sense: we confuse noise for signal when we pay too close attention. We also get trapped in our own little information bubbles when we pay too close attention. “Hyperinformation” (his term) can lead to more uncertainty, not less.

I think we’ve come to a point where hyperinformation is at least somewhat good. Yes, for the reasons listed, it can be paralyzing if you want the truth. But at the same time, it means the truth might be out there to discover. We don’t only get the corporate media narrative now. There are independent reporters and journalists working hard to present viable alternatives. It isn’t hopeless to see through the noise now (as it was back in the 80’s).

Baudrillard says we can get out of the despair of all this by treating it like a “game of irresponsiblity, of ironic challenge, of sovereign lack of will, of secret ruse.” The media manipulates and the masses resist, or better yet, respond.

I’ll just reiterate that what Baudrillard identifies as the central problem here has been partially solved in modern day. The masses have twitter and facebook and comments sections and their own blogs and youtube channels. The masses have a way to speak back now. Unfortunately, this has opened up a whole new set of problems, and I wish Baudrillard were still around. He’d probably have some interesting things to say about it.

Now that I’ve been doing this Critical Postmodern Reading series, I’m coming to believe these postmodernists were maligned unjustly. I’m coming to believe we should keep two terms distinct. The “postmodernist philosopher” analyzes the issues of the postmodern condition. The “postmodern academic” utilizes the confusion brought on by the postmodern condition to push their own narrative.

It’s easy to look at the surface of Baudrillard and claim he’s some crackpot history denier that thinks there’s no such thing as objective reality so we all make our own truth.

But if you read him carefully, he seems to be saying some very important true things. He thinks there is an objective, true reality, and it’s dangerous that we all simulate different versions of it (i.e. we filter the news through an algorithm that tells us the world is how we think it is). The truth gets hijacked by narratives. He sees the monopoly the media has on these narratives as damaging and even simulating a false reality.

His writing doesn’t even slip into incomprehensible, postmodernist jargon to obscure the argument. I thought this article was illuminating despite and comprehensible. The only parts that don’t still feel applicable are where he didn’t predict how technology would go.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 13

Graham Greene is one of my favorite “classical” English language writers (I guess I mean he’s taught in some schools). I first read The Power and the Glory eleven years ago, and I was blown away by it. I haven’t returned to the novel since then, but I wanted to use it to dig into Greene’s prose a bit.

I’m not religious, and I wasn’t back when I read it either. One of the things that struck me most about the novel is its ambiguous stance toward religion. The book takes place in a (future?) time where religion is banned. Literally every single reference to any religion is destroyed by the government.

The main character is a Catholic priest secretly keeping religion alive and standing up to the evil government. It sounds like the setup to a cheesy, made-for-tv, inspirational religious movie. But the priest is a drunkard (known as the “whisky priest”). He’s gluttonous and immoral. Now it sounds like anti-religious fiction about hypocrisy in the Catholic church.

Eventually I realized that thinking in terms of these competing narratives was a mistake. This setup was merely a powerful tool to examine the human condition. Each of us has virtues and vices. Each of us has a moral compass we try to live by, and part of the novel is to show how even the strongest of us can throw these ideals away when put in dire situations.

Greene writes with a simplicity and clarity necessary to drive these points home. The book could have easily slid into excess drama and cliche and angst if done by a less-skilled writer. Instead, we get a beautiful story of human frailty.

Anyway, I thought that preface was necessary to understand an analysis of the prose style. Here’s a segment from the second chapter:

The lieutenant walked home through the shuttered town. All his life had lain here: the Syndicate of Workers and Peasants had once been a school. He had helped to wipe out that unhappy memory. The whole town was changed: the cement playground up the hill near the cemetery where iron swings stood like gallows in the moony darkness was the site of the cathedral. The new children would have new memories: nothing would ever be as it was. There was something of a priest in his intent observant walk- a theologian going back over the errors of the past to destroy them again.

One of the hallmarks of non-professional writing is the misapplication of “show, don’t tell.” Something that is supposed to be a small detail blows up into paragraphs of showing for no reason. The brilliance of Greene here is how he uses single, carefully chosen descriptive words to evoke feelings, mood, scenery, backstory, and more. Lesson: one can show more with less words if those words do work.

One could imagine an exuberant young writer letting that first sentence get out of hand with descriptions of the shutters and houses and the general mood and atmosphere of the town. Instead, Greene’s use of the phrase “shuttered town” does all this work for us. We understand the people are terrified. They’ve shut themselves in. No one is out and about. It’s desolate and bleak.

All of this “showing” happens in our head, because Greene struck upon a great word. If the word “shuttered” were something like “terrified,” we’d only get the mood. If it were something like “locked up,” we’d get a visual, but not the mood.

Next, Greene does multiple things at once. He describes select places in the town in order to get backstory on the lieutenant and paint a picture and explain the current political climate.

When the lieutenant was a child, there was a school. He was part of wiping it out and replacing it with the “Syndicate of Workers and Peasants.” Greene doesn’t take the time to explain what this is, but it’s clear. This is some bureaucratic government thing. The name evokes this without further need to explain.

A cathedral was destroyed, and a playground put in. But if Greene had said it this way, we might think this is a happy place. Instead, he gives us the simile “iron swings stood like gallows.” It evokes the disturbing thought of children having to do with chopping people’s heads off. Careful juxtaposition like this can paint vivid imagery in people’s minds. Greene continues this theme. The playground is “cement.” It’s near the cemetery.

Everything about the description of this place is disturbing, and what’s brilliant is that he reveals so much about the character and the town while doing this. This is a man remembering his own history with these places: how he helped wreck the town.

Then he uses a parallel concept. The new children will have new memories. Greene shifts from the character’s childhood to new children and what they’ll think.

The paragraph closes by drawing a parallel to the priest. He connects two of the characters in the novel and draws out a theme. All people want redemption from their past mistakes. But sometimes things we do to absolve a “mistake” only makes things worse. Those “mistakes” might not even have been mistakes at all, but we only see this in hindsight.

The takeaway from Greene’s prose is that one can show more with a few carefully chosen details than if one were to spend paragraphs describing it all. This stripped back style strikes emotional resonance in the novel (especially the haunting last chapter).

Of course, style must be chosen to suit the needs of the work, so this might not be the best choice for everything. But it’s hard to think of a modern novel that wouldn’t be made better by moving in this direction a little.

Year of Short Fiction Part 6: Cosmicomics

I’ve sort of been dreading this one, but it’s the only thing remaining on my short fiction list that I own. Three years ago I wrote up my interpretation of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. Calvino can be strange and highly symbolic, but that book’s meaning jumped out at me with little effort. He had constructed a condensed history of critical theory through the story.

I had a vague familiarity with Cosmicomics, so I knew it would be harder. The stories all feature or are told by a character named Qfwfq. Each story starts with a tidbit of science such as:

Situated in the external zone of the Milky Way, the Sun takes about two hundred million years to make a complete revolution of the galaxy.

The story that follows is usually related to this somehow. The collection as a whole can be read as a symbolic retelling of the history of the universe. Calvino has taken real science and created mythologies that actually fit the data.

But it’s more than that. The stories often have a moral to them or a symbolic quality. They aren’t just fictionalizations of the events of the early universe. They’re almost parables like classic mythology. He’s achieved something odd with these.

The collection came out in 1965, fairly early in Calvino’s career, and well before the highly experimental If on a winter’s night a traveler. Calvino believed realism to be dead, and these stories mark his foray into a new type of fiction. He held on to pieces of realism but incorporated highly fantastical elements.

That’s enough of an overview, let’s dig into my favorite story to see these elements at work. “All at One Point” is a story about the Big Bang. More specifically, it’s about the time when the universe existed in a single point.

The beginning of the story comically plays with the idea that “we were all there.” On a scientific level, this is obviously true. Every atom in the universe existed in the singular point “before” the Big Bang. This includes every atom in our bodies, so we were physically there.

Calvino cleverly takes this statement to its extreme form and personifies us as actually existing at one point. The narrator, Qfwfq, says, “…having somebody unpleasant like Mr Pber^t Pber^t underfoot all the time is the most irritating thing.”

The story spends quite a bit of time in a Flatland-type thought experiment. Through humorous interactions, Calvino teases apart a lot of odd ideas about what it actually would mean to collapse the universe to a single point. For example, one couldn’t count how many people were there, because that would require pulling apart, no matter how slightly.

One family, the Z’zu, got labelled “immigrants.” This, of course, makes no sense, because there is no such thing as outside or inside the point. There is no such thing as before or after the point. Time only started at the Big Bang. So the family couldn’t have come from somewhere else.

The humor in this surface-level reading of the story is already worth it, and I won’t spoil any of the other awkward moments shared by these people from all occupying the same point.

Then the story turns its attention to Mrs Ph(i)Nk_o. She is one of the Z’zu, the family everyone hated. But she’s different. She is pure happiness and joy, and no one can say anything bad about her.

In an act of epic generosity, despite what people say about her family, she says:

Oh, if I only had some room, how I’d like to make some tagliatelle for you boys!

That’s what causes the Big Bang. The universe is made and expands and the Sun and planets and everything. It all happened because of a true act of selflessness and love. The phrasing of the final paragraph is very moving. I won’t quote it here, because I think it must be read in context to be appreciated.

The theme, when condensed to a pithy phrase, is something like “love can make universes.” It sounds really cliche and cheesy, and I think this is one of the things that makes these stories so brilliant. In the moment of reading, they feel profound and fresh.

Calvino’s use of vivid space imagery takes you on a grand journey. These cliche themes are the same that one can find in all the great ancient stories. They only feel tired when done in modern stories. By creating his own mythology, Calvino is able to revisit these sorts of themes without embarrassment.

For the Year of Short Fiction, I do want to return to the question of: why short? In other words, does great short fiction have a genuine uniqueness to it, or is it essentially the same as a novel, just shorter?

I think here we can definitively say that this type of writing can only work in short stories. Even expanding one of these to a novella length would be too much. These stories each revolve around a conceit and a theme. The conceit would grow tiresome if done for too long. I cannot imagine a novella of jokes about everyone existing on top of each other. They would lose their impact.

What excites me about Cosmicomics is that this is the first thing I’ve read this year that I feel this way about. I could imagine the novellas I’ve read and even Cthulhu working as full novels. They wouldn’t be as tightly written, but they’d still work. The very nature of Cosmicomics is that they are short stories. I’m glad to have finally found this.

I should stipulate, though, that one can read the entire collection of stories as a novel: an autobiography of Qfwfq’s life and fictionalization of the history of the universe. This is also an interesting and unique aspect, because almost every short story collection I can think of has separate, unrelated stories. This full collection should be read together to get the best experience.

Become a Patron!

I’ve come to a crossroads recently.

I write a blog post every week. It takes time. The last one was close to 2,000 words and required reading a book. For the past three years I’ve been writing full time, and so blogging can be a burden that cuts into this with no monetary rewards.

This blog is now over nine years old, and I’ve done nothing to monetize it. I think this is mostly a good thing. I do not and will not run any sort of advertisements. Even upon the release of my first book, I only did a brief mention and then no promotion afterward (and as far as I can tell, this converted to literally 0 sales).

I want this to be about the blog content. I do not want it to turn into some secret ad campaign to sell my work. I can think of many authors who have done this, and I ended up unsubscribing from them.

This brings me to the point. Putting this much work into something is not really sustainable anymore without some sort of support, so I’ve started a Patreon page. As you’ll see, my initial goal is quite modest and will barely cover the expenses to run my blog and website. But without anything, I will slowly phase out writing here regularly.

If this concept is new to you, Patreon is a site dedicated to supporting creative work. Patrons can pledge money to support people creating content they like. It can be as little as $1 a month (or as many podcasters say: “less than a coffee a month”), and in return, you not only help the site to keep running, you’ll receive bonus content as well.

Because of the scattered nature of my posts, I know a lot of you are probably scared to support, because you might not get content of interest for the month. Some of you like the math and tune out for the writing advice. Some of you like the critical analysis of philosophy and wish the articles on game mechanics didn’t exist.

For consistency, I’ll only put out something that would be tagged “literature” for the vast majority of posts from now on. This means once a month or less and probably never two months in a row (i.e. six per year spread out equally). This “literature” tag includes, but is not limited to, most posts on philosophy that touch on narrative or language somehow, editing rules, writing advice, book reviews, story structure analysis, examining pro’s prose, movie reviews, and so on.

Again, the core original vision for the blog included game and music and math posts, but these will be intentionally fewer now. If you check the past few years, I basically already did this anyway, but this way you know what you’re signing up for.

I think people are drawn to my literature analysis because I’m in a unique position. This month I’m about to submit my fifth romance novel under a pseudonym. This is the “commercial” work I do for money, and it’s going reasonably well. I’ve come to understand the ins and outs of genre fiction through this experience, and it has been a valuable part of learning the craft of writing for me.

My main work under my real name is much more literary. I’ve put out one novel of literary fiction. Next month I’ll put out my second “real” novel, which is firmly in the fantasy genre but hopefully doesn’t give up high-quality prose.

These two opposite experiences have given me an eye for what makes story work and what makes prose work. All over this blog I’ve shown that I love experimental writing, but I’ve also been one of the few people to unapologetically call out BS where I see it.

As you can imagine, writing several genre novels and a “real” novel every year makes it tough to justify this weekly blog for the fun of it.

If I haven’t convinced you that the quality here is worth supporting, I’ll give you one last tidbit. I get to see incoming links thanks to WordPress, so I know that more than one graduate seminar and MFA program has linked to various posts I’ve made on critical theory and difficult literature. Since I’m not in those classes, I can’t be sure of the purpose, but graduate programs tend to only suggest reading things that are worth reading. There just isn’t enough time for anything else.

I know, I know. Print is dead. You’d rather support people making podcasts or videos, but writing is the easiest way to get my ideas across. I listen to plenty of podcasts on writing, but none of them get to dig into things like prose style. The format isn’t conducive to it. One needs to see the text under analysis to really get the commentary on it.

Don’t panic. I won’t decrease blog production through the end of 2017, but I’m setting an initial goal of $100 per month. We’ll go from there, because even that might not be a sustainable level long-term. If it isn’t met, I’ll have to adjust accordingly. It’s just one of those unfortunate business decisions. Sometimes firing someone is the right move, even if they’re your friend.

I’ve set up a bunch supporter rewards, and I think anyone interested in the blog will find them well worth it. I’m being far more generous than most Patreon pages making similar content. Check out the page for details. The rewards involve seeing me put into practice what I talk about with video of me editing a current project with live commentary; extra fiction I write for free; free copies of my novels; extra “Examining Pro’s Prose” articles; and more!

I hope you find the content here worth supporting (I’m bracing myself for the humiliation of getting $2 a month and knowing it’s from my parents). If you don’t feel you can support the blog, feel free to continue reading and commenting for free. The community here has always been excellent.

Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 2: Finishing Lyotard

Last time we looked at the introduction to Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. That introduction already contained much of what gets fleshed out in the rest of the short book, so I’m going to mostly summarize stuff until we hit anything that requires serious critical thought.

The first chapter goes into how computers have changed the way we view knowledge. It was probably an excellent insight that required argument at the time. Now it’s obvious to everyone. Humans used to gain knowledge by reading books and talking to each other. It was a somewhat qualitative experience. The nature of knowledge has shifted with (big) data and machine learning. It’s very quantitative. It’s also a commodity to be bought and sold (think Facebook/Google).

It is a little creepy to understand Lyotard’s prescience. He basically predicts that multinational corporations will have the money to buy this data, and owning the data gives them real-world power. He predicts knowledge “circulation” in a similar way to money circulation.  Here’s a part of the prediction:

The reopening of the world market, a return to vigorous economic competition, the breakdown of the hegemony of American capitalism, the decline of the socialist alternative, a probable opening of the Chinese markets …

Other than the decline of the socialist alternative (which seems to have had a recent surge), Lyotard has a perfect prediction of how computerization of knowledge actually affected the world in the 40 years since he wrote this.

Chapter two reiterates the idea that scientific knowledge (i.e. the type discussed above) is different than, and in conflict with, “narrative” knowledge. There is also a legitimation “problem” in science. The community as a whole must choose gatekeepers seen as legitimate who decide what counts as scientific knowledge.

I’ve written about why I don’t see this as a problem like Lyotard does, but I’ll concede the point that there is a legitimation that happens, and it could be a problem if those gatekeepers change the narrative to influence what is thought of as true. There are even known instances of political biases making their way into schools of scientific thought (see my review of Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger).

Next Lyotard sets up the framework for thinking about this. He uses Wittgenstein’s “language game” concept. The rules of the game can never legitmate themselves. Even small modifications of the rules can greatly alter meaning. And lastly (I think this is where he differs from Wittgenstein), each speech act is an attempt to alter the rules. Since agreeing upon the current set of rules is a social contract, it is necessary to understand the “nature of social bonds.”

This part gets a little weird to me. He claims that classically society has been seen either as a unified whole or divided in two. The rules of the language games in a unified whole follow standard entropy (they get more complicated and chaotic and degenerate). The divided in two conception is classic Marxism (bourgeoisie/proletariat).

Even if it gets a bit on the mumbo-jumbo side through this part, I think his main point is summarized by this quote:

For it is impossible to know what the state of knowledge is—in other words, the problems its development and distribution are facing today—without knowing something of the society within which it is situated.

This doesn’t seem that controversial to me considering I’ve already admitted that certain powers can control the language and flow of knowledge. Being as generous as possible here, I think he’s just saying we have to know how many of these powers there are and who has the power and who legitimated that power before we can truly understand who’s forming these narratives and why.

In the postmodern world, we have a ton of different institutions all competing for their metanarrative to be heard. Society is more fractured than just the two divisions of the modern world. But each of these institutions also has a set of rules for their language games that constrains them.  For example, the language of prayer has a different set of rules from an academic discussion at a university.

Chapters 7-9 seem to me to be where the most confusion on both the part of Lyotard and the reader can occur. He dives into the concept of narrative truth and scientific truth. You can already feel Lyotard try to position scientific truth to be less valuable than it is and narrative truth more valuable.

Lyotard brings up the classic objections to verification and falsification (namely a variant on Hume’s Problem of Induction). How does one prove ones proof and evidence of a theory is true? How does one know the laws of nature are consistent across time and space? How can one say that a (scientific) theory is true merely because it cannot be falsified?

These were much more powerful objections in Lyotard’s time, but much of science now takes a Bayesian epistemology (even if they don’t admit to this terminology). We believe what is most probable, and we’re open to changing our minds if the evidence leads in that direction. I addressed this more fully a few years ago in my post: Does Bayesian Epistemology Suffer Foundational Problems?

… drawing a parallel between science and nonscientific (narrative) knowledge helps us understand, or at least sense, that the former’s existence is no more—and no less—necessary than the latter’s.

These sorts of statements are where things get tricky for me. I buy the argument that narrative knowledge is important. One can read James Baldwin and gain knowledge and empathy of a gay black man’s perspective that changes your life and the way you see the world. Or maybe you read Butler’s performative theory of gender and suddenly understand your own gender expression in a new way. Both of these types of narrative knowledge could even be argued to be a “necessary” and vital part of humanity.

I also agree science is a separate type of knowledge, but I also see science as clearly more necessary than narrative knowledge. If we lost all of James Baldwin’s writings tomorrow, it would be a tragedy. If we lost the polio vaccine tomorrow, it would be potentially catastrophic.

It’s too easy to philosophize science into this abstract pursuit and forget just how many aspects of your life it touches (your computer, the electricity in your house, the way you cook, the way you get your food, the way you clean yourself). Probably 80% of the developed world would literally die off in a few months if scientific knowledge disappeared.

I’ll reiterate that Lyotard thinks science is vastly important. He is in no way saying the problems of science are crippling. The above quote is more in raising narrative knowledge to the same importance of science than the devaluing of science (Lyotard might point to the disastrous consequences that happened as a result of convincing a nation of the narrative that the Aryan race is superior). For example, he says:

Today the problem of legitimation is no longer considered a failing of the language game of science. It would be more accurate to say that it has itself been legitimated as a problem, that is, as a heuristic driving force.

Anyway, getting back to the main point. Lyotard points out that problems of legitimating knowledge is essentially modern, and though we should be aware of the difficulties, we shouldn’t be too concerned with it. The postmodern problem is the grand delegitimation of various narratives (and one can’t help but hear Trump yell “Fake News” while reading this section of Lyotard).

Lyotard spends several sections developing a theory of how humans do science, and he develops the language of “performativity.” It all seems pretty accurate to me, and not really worth commenting on (i.e. it’s just a description). He goes into the issues Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem caused for positivists. He talks about the Bourbaki group. He talks about the seeming paradox of having to look for counterexamples while simultaneously trying to prove the statement to be true.

I’d say the most surprising thing is that he gets this stuff right. You often hear about postmodernists hijacking math/science to make their mumbo-jumbo sound more rigorous. He brings up Brownian motion and modeling discontinuous phenomena with differentiable functions to ease analysis and how the Koch curve has a non-whole number dimension. These were all explained without error and without claiming they imply things they don’t imply.

Lyotard wants to call these unintuitive and bizarre narratives about the world that come from weird scientific and mathematical facts “postmodern science.” Maybe it’s because we’ve had over forty more years to digest this, but I say: why bother? To me, this is the power of science. The best summary I can come up with is this:

Narrative knowledge must be convincing as a narrative; science is convincing despite the unconvincing narrative it suggests (think of the EPR paradox in quantum mechanics or even the germ theory of disease when it was first suggested).

I know I riffed a bit harder on the science stuff than a graduate seminar on the book would. Overall, I thought this was an excellent read. It seems more relevant now than when it was written, because it cautions about the dangers of powerful organizations buying a bunch of data and using that to craft narratives we want to hear while deligitimating narratives that hurt them (but which might be true).

We know now that this shouldn’t be a futuristic, dystopian fear (as it was in Lyotard’s time). It’s really happening with targeted advertising and the rise of government propaganda and illegitimate news sources propagating our social media feeds. We believe what the people with money want us to believe, and it’s impossible to free ourselves from it until we understand the situation with the same level of clarity that Lyotard did.

Difficult Subject Matter in 90’s Song Lyrics

I don’t want to make one of those click bait “the 90’s had the best music EVER!!” posts. One can find really terrible music and really excellent music in any decade. It would be a futile task to claim one decade had the best music.

I went down a strange rabbit hole the other day, though. I just put up a song on youtube and let the autoplay happen while I worked on some other things. It shifted into some sort of 90’s nostalgia playlist, and I kept hearing very surprising lyrics. They were songs I knew from living through the time, but they handled difficult subject matter in subtle and beautiful ways I hadn’t noticed.

I’d be surprised if songs like these could get on the radio today, but I distinctly remember hearing both of these songs on the radio in the 90’s.

Let’s start with “Round Here” by Counting Crows. First off, I’d like to point out that the song is through-composed, already something that could never happen today. The song appears to be about a depressed girl who attempts suicide. But it’s also about the disillusionment of growing up and finding out all those things you were told in childhood probably didn’t matter.

If you think it’s farfetched to have so much in one “pop” song, listen to it a few times. It’s all in there and more. A quick google search brings up wild, yet convincing, interpretations. This “universality” is the hallmark of great song art. Everyone listens to it and thinks it’s about their experience.

Here’s the opening:

Step out the front door like a ghost
Into the fog where no one notices
The contrast of white on white.
And in between the moon and you
The angels get a better view
Of the crumbling difference between wrong and right.

It opens with a beautiful simile. Sometimes pop songs have similes, but they tend to be funny or ironic. It’s hard to think of any current ones that do the hard work of writing something real. “Like a ghost into the fog” is such apt imagery for the point he’s making. Ghosts are white and ethereal. Fog is white and ethereal. A ghost that steps into fog loses all sense of self and no one else can see the person. They’re lost.

Then angels see a crumbling of the difference between wrong and right. This sort of moral ambiguity is another thing it would be hard to find in today’s lyrics. In the context of one of the interpretations I provided, this is probably in reference to how adults tell children right and wrong with clear certainty. As one grows up, one learns that it’s never that obvious.

The lyrics just keep getting better from there.

Next up is “Freshmen” by the Verve Pipe. This song hit Number 5 on the Billboard Top 100. Fifteen years ago, I thought I understood this song. Now I hear it from a totally different perspective.

Originally, I thought it was about a girl that broke up with the singer and then she killed herself over it. The singer is ridden with guilt. But the lyrics, when carefully analyzed, paint a slightly different picture.

Here’s the opening:

When I was young I knew everything
She a punk who rarely ever took advice
Now I’m guilt stricken,
Sobbing with my head on the floor
Stop a baby’s breath and a shoe full of rice

The singer is a typical Freshmen. He thinks he knows everything. This is part of what has changed for me in the song. I was pretty modest as a Freshmen, but now I can look back and it terrifies me how much I thought I knew. I’ve heard this feeling only gets worse as you age.

The key to the song is given right up front. “Stop a baby’s breath” is a reference to his girlfriend getting an abortion, and how this led to a fight and breakup. “A shoe full of rice” is about how they were even planning on getting married. Again, this is subtle imagery that blows by early on in the song. It requires careful attention if one is to understand the rest of the song.

I can’t be held responsible

This is something he tells himself, but he doesn’t believe it. This is a shift in voice, because it goes from narration of the story to internal thoughts. If one takes this line at face value without understanding this shift, one will misinterpret it. Here’s the chorus:

For the life of me I cannot remember
What made us think that we were wise and
We’d never compromise
For the life of me I cannot believe
We’d ever die for these sins
We were merely freshmen

Here’s another reference to his youthful arrogance. He thought he knew everything, and convinced his girlfriend to get the abortion. He refused to compromise and it destroyed their relationship. If you don’t know this song, it’s worth a listen to the rest. It progressively complicates as the guilt reverberates. He can’t hold other relationships out of fear of it happening again.

There’s something haunting about the reiteration of “we were merely freshmen” at the end of each phrase. When we’re young, we think we can do anything without much lasting consequence, but the singer learns the hard way that one devastating mistake can haunt you forever.

To wrap this up, I want to reiterate that it isn’t the difficulty of the subject matter that I find so amazing about these 90’s hits. Plenty of current hits have difficult subject matter. It’s the delicacy with which the lyrics handle the subject. It’s poetic and abstract so that the feeling comes through but the listener interprets it to apply to their own life.

Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 1: Lyotard

I’m over nine years into this blog, so I think most readers know my opinions and worldview on many issues in philosophy. I roughly subscribe to a Bayesian epistemology, and in practical terms this amounts to something like being a rational humanist and skeptic.

I believe there is an objective world and science can get at it, sometimes, but we also have embodied minds subject to major flaws, and so we can’t experience that world directly. Also, with near 100% probability, we experience many aspects in a fundamentally different way than it “actually” exists. This puts me somewhat in line with postmodernists.

I believe there are valid and invalid ways to interpret art. This puts me in stark contrast to postmodernists. Postmodernism, as a school of thought, seems to have made a major comeback in academic circles. I’ve also written about the dangers posed by these types of ideas. For more information, search “philosophy” on the sidebar. These opinions have been fleshed out over the course of tens of thousands of words.

I first read famous postmodernists and proto-postmodernists like Baudrillard, Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida, Hegel, and so on as an undergrad (i.e. before this blog even existed). At that time, I had none of the worldview above. I basically read those philosophers with the reaction: “Whoa, dude, that’s deep.” I went along with the other students, pretending to understand the profound thoughts of continental philosophy.

I’ve never returned to them, because I didn’t think they were relevant anymore. I kind of thought we were past the idea of “post-truth.” Now I’m not so sure. This whole intro is basically a way to say that I want to try to tackle some of these texts with a more critical approach and with the added knowledge and experience I’ve gained.

I know this will ruffle a lot of feathers. Part of postmodernists “thing” is to dismiss any criticism as “you’re not an expert, so you just don’t understand it.” That’s fine. I’m going to make an honest effort, though, and if you love this stuff and think I’m misunderstanding, let me know. I’m into learning.

Today we’ll tackle Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. This is arguably the most important work in the subject, and is often cited as the work that defined “postmodernism.” Since I’ve already wasted a bunch of space with the setup, we’ll only cover the Introduction for now. I recall having to read the Introduction for a class, and I’m pretty sure that’s the extent we covered Lyotard at all.

The Introduction is primarily focused on giving an explanation of what Lyotard means by “the postmodern condition,” and how we know we are living in it. There is something important and subtle here. The section is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Modern (liberal arts) academia tends to think in prescriptive terms. We’ll get to that later.

I guess I’ll now just pull some famous quotes and expound on them.

Science has always been in conflict with narratives.

I don’t think this is that controversial. He’s saying science is one narrative for how we arrive at knowledge. The narrative might be called the Enlightenment Values narrative. It’s based on empiricism and rational argument.

This narrative is so pervasive that we often forget it is a narrative. We usually equate science with knowledge, but these values didn’t always exist in the West. There is a substantial body of work from Descartes to Kant that had to make the case for rationality and empiricism as a foundation for knowledge. That’s the definition of a narrative.

The fact that science comes into conflict with other narratives should be readily obvious. There are science vs religion debates all the time to this day. Lyotard also points out another vital concept we often overlook. There are lots of institutions and political forces behind what we call science, and each of these has its own metanarrative that might come into conflict with forming knowledge.

I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it.

This is a bit deeper than it looks, but only because I know the context of Lyotard’s writing. Taken with the first quote above, one might just think that he’s saying the progress of science has led to people questioning the metanarratives of their lives, like the religion they were brought up in.

Part of the reason Lyotard has chosen the term “postmodern” to describe this condition is because of the artistic movements known as postmodernism. The utter destruction of World War I and World War II brought a destabilization to people’s lives.

Technology created this destruction, and it was fueled by science. Not only did people question the traditions they were brought up in, but they began to question if science itself was good. Much of the postmodern art produced in the decades after WWII focused on highly disjointed narratives (Lost in the Funhouse), the horrors of war (Gravity’s Rainbow), involved utter chaos and randomness (Dadaism), or emphasized futility and meaninglessness (Waiting for Godot).

All these aspects overthrew narratives and traditions. They weren’t just radical because of the content, they often questioned whether we even knew what a novel or a play or a poem or a piece of music was. If we no longer knew what these longstanding artistic forms and narratives were, how could we trust any of the narratives that gave our life meaning?

And I’ll reiterate, there is a pretty direct link from the science that brought the destruction to this “postmodern condition” people found themselves in.

The rest of the Introduction gets pretty jargony.

Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?

There is a danger that people will seize upon any stabilizing force once in this position. Authority figures can even ride this to power (we just watched this happen in the U.S.). They tell us stories that make sense and make us feel better, so we put them in power. This is an endless cycle, because once in power, they control the narrative.

How do we form truth and knowledge in such a society? That is the subject of Lyotard’s book and is not answered merely in the Introduction.

I’ll end today’s post by pointing out something very important. Lyotard seems to believe in truth and knowledge and science. He seems concerned by people’s rejection of these concepts due to the postmodern condition.

When people self-describe themselves as a postmodernist, they tend to mean they reject the notion of truth. They say that all we have are narratives, and each is equally valid. Maybe this is because Lyotard isn’t a postmodernist? He merely describes what is going on.

I think more likely it’s that this label has changed from descriptive to prescriptive. Current postmodernists think of the postmodern condition as being good. If science starts to dominate as a narrative, these people want to reject that. In some sense they see this as “liberation” from the “imperialist white capitalist patriarchy” that has dominated the West and caused so much suffering.

I’m very curious to see if these attitudes actually crop up in the writings of postmodernist philosophers or if the this view is some corruption of these thinkers.