Monday, June 24, 2024

Love and dialogue.

Salinger is just an amazing stylist of everyday language, amazing at conveying what he wants to convey, casually without any unnecessary flashiness. I was thinking of that today, looking closely at this quick interchange between the English Esmé (who is about twelve) and the American narrator (a soldier in his twenties who, like Salinger, will be part of the imminent invasion of Normandy):
She guided the conversation in a different direction. “I’d be extremely flattered if you’d write a story exclusively for me sometime. I’m an avid reader.”

I told her I certainly would, if I could. I said that I wasn’t terribly prolific.

“It doesn’t have to be terribly prolific! Just so that it isn’t childish and silly.” She reflected. “I prefer stories about squalor.”
As with almost all of their conversation, in this exchange the narrator reports Esmé's speech verbatim and his own in indirect discourse ("I said that...."). This gives her a vividness that he lacks -- which is the point. I like the way we can tell he did use the exact phrase "terribly prolific" since Esmé repeats those words verbatim in her response. But her vividness comes from the English spin she puts on them. The idiomatic way that Americans use terribly in a sentence is usually in the negative: "I'm not terribly eager to go to that movie." It's understatement via negation of overstatement. The English way is the opposite. It's gracefully hyperbolic. (At a restaurant: "I'm terribly sorry to bother you, but may I have a glass of water without ice?") Esmé (who of course doesn't know what either "prolific" or "squalor" means) is reassuring him that a little prolificacy will be fine. And it's that difference that makes it possible to hear her voice against the grey background of his indirect speech. Another example of what I love about Salinger as a writer.

Saturday, February 24, 2024


We went to see the National Theatre's Vanya yesterday (HD broadcast at the movie theater) -- a one person show with Andrew Scott playing every role.

Do you need to know the Chekhov? I don't know. But Scott is just amazing. The Times and Guardian missed the point (though they acknowledged that his performance was a tour-de-force. But what he did was essentially to land halfway between Chekhov and Beckett. "Thus play I in one person many people," says Richard II, and that's what he does. It brings home the loneliness of the world, just as Beckett will later. And it got me thinking about Beckett's dramatic career, how we go from several people alone (Godot, Endgame) to one person mostly alone and covering for her loneliness through an unending stream of cheerful and optimistic conversational gambits (Happy Days) to a person entirely alone, but talking to his past self (Krapp to the void-filling desperation of complete solitude in which the speaker is trying to create a simulation Not I. I hadn't quite thought of it as that kind of progression before, but now I see it. And Scott's Vanya belongs to that progression somewhere, both before and after it. He makes you see what Beckett is doing, and makes you see how Beckette makes you see what Chekhov is doing.

Saturday, October 7, 2023

Three interruptions

I think Shakespeare, in the early seventeenth century, was thinking (or noticing) acts of self-interruption, and what they could do. When a speaker interrupts themselves, we realize that they're hearing just what we're hearing. So Hamlet interrupts his performance of Aeneas's tale to Dido:
The rugged Pyrrhus, like th’ Hyrcanian beast—
’tis not so; it begins with Pyrrhus:
The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,
Black as his purpose, did the night resemble
When he lay couchèd in th’ ominous horse,
Hath now this dread and black complexion smeared
With heraldry more dismal. Head to foot,
Now is he total gules, horridly tricked
With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,
Baked and impasted with the parching streets,
That lend a tyrannous and a damnèd light
To their lord’s murder. Roasted in wrath and fire,
And thus o’ersizèd with coagulate gore,
With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus
Old grandsire Priam seeks.
The interruption comes to a speech which considers others, those in an extreme condition, those the speaker -- Aeneas or Hamlet -- ie forever separated from, and yet who represent a universe one might live in, if one could. Not long ago I commented on this speech in Macbeth:
Seyton!--I am sick at heart,
When I behold--Seyton, I say!--This push
Will cheer me ever, or disseat me now.
I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not. Seyton!
I was haunted by the way Macbeth has a set piece in mind, but is also alert to the world around him, to the fact of another person, even as he is aware of the encroaching limits of the world: the bourn that life sets on how far to be beloved, the bourn that no traveler returns from once they've crossed it. Somehow, despite a note comparing (and contrasting) Seyton as the last residual figure still loyal to the Macbeth to Lear's Fool, I don't think I'd ever put it together with a very similar moment in King Lear which I also love, and which may have been the play Shakespeare wrote right before Macbeth:
Prithee, go in thyself. Seek thine own ease.
This tempest will not give me leave to ponder
On things would hurt me more. But I’ll go in.—
In, boy; go first.—You houseless poverty—
Nay, get thee in. I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend you
From seasons such as these?
Each interrupts himself and begins again after a kind of anacoluthon. They make a sort of gesture outwards to another, and then return to themselves, but after populating the emptiness around them with the possibilities of others: "troops of friends" or "you houseless poverty," "poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are." There's a fundamental loneliness that this evocation of others makes us feel: the loneliness of the others and not only of the soliloquist, a kind of sense, then of the fundamentality of loneliness.

Monday, July 3, 2023

Subjective probablity

Scientific American has a brief article about the Sleeping Beauty Paradox. I think that thinking about it may be illuminating for the central importance of the idea of subjective probability:

So my analysis is this:

There’s a 50/50 chance that she’s in the one-time universe. And she knows she’ll be woken up, so waking her up conveys no information. It’s a bit like the show Severance, and so she's entitled to seeing her chances of being in each universe as 50-50.

But from a different perspective: imagine this: there are two staff members in the two-wakings universe, but neither of whom knows which universe they're in. Each one has an independent one-time assignment to wake her up. Because they don't know which universe they're in, they don't know if someone else will have or already has woken her up. (The day of the week thing doesn't matter: ignore it.) There's also one staff member in the one-waking universe who also doesn’t know which universe they’re in assigned to wake her up in. Each of the three -- on a bet -- should bet that they're in the two-wakings universe, since the odds are 2-1 that they are. Thus any particular moment of her waking up is more likely in the two-wakings universe than in the one-waking universe.

That seems obvious. On the other hand Sleeping Beauty gets no more info when she’s woken up than she had before, when it was 50-50 which universe she would be in. So there's no reason for her to believe that she's more likely to be in the two-wakings universe, since she'll be woken up either way, and each experience is completely independent of any others. There is no set of events that she can refer to. Her subjective experience (each time!) is to be woken up once and only once.

So if she sees herself from outside she’s going to bet that the person waking her up is one of the pair who don’t know which universe they’re in but who would rightly bet they’re in the two-wakings universe. But she has to take that circuit, relying on other people’s subjective probability, rather than her own. More simply: subjectively she has one experience of waking up, and there's a 50-50 chance that she's in the one-waking universe when she has that experience. But vicariously she knows that the person waking her up would rightly bet that they're in the two-wakings universe. And they should bet that they're in the two-wakings universe because each would know vicariously that anyone waking her up should bet on being in that universe. The point being that the wakers know that two other wakers also have the task of waking her up, whereas she's the only Sleeping Beauty, and will only have a memory of a single experience of being woken up. (There may be a tense logic to this: her memory is part of a present-tense subjective experience of her own past, whereas the wakers are having a present-tense objective experience of the objective existence in the present of other wakers.)

Anyhow, I think it's like the well-known two-envelopes problem:

There are two envelopes, one of which contains twice the amount of money as the other. You’re given a chance to switch. Is there an advantage to doing so?

The argument for it: It’s just as though you’re flipping a coin, where the stakes are putting half of what you have at risk to double the amount. I have $10; I flip a coin and have a 50% chance of getting $20, and a 50% chance or losing only $5. Of course that’s a good bet, Pascalians!

The argument against: I know one has $10 and one has $20. 50-50 chance I have the $20 envelope and 50-50 that I have the $10 envelope. If I have the $20 and I switch I’ll lose $10. If I have the $10 I’ll gain $10. 50-50 chance either way of gaining or losing $10.

The argument for switching hits a paradox because then why shouldn’t you switch again after you’ve already switched, and do this forever?

The argument against is clear cut and obviously true, even if you use $n and $2n without knowing what n is.

In the argument for switching there seem to be three equally possible amounts of money: n, 2n, n/2. And it’s presented as though all three are possible outcomes. But only two are possible, once the envelopes are sealed. Subjectively 3, but objectively 2. So this is where Bayesian subjective probability hits an infinite loop that frequentist probability wouldn’t.

The infinite loop can be thought of this way as well: every time j you're asked whether you want to switch the expected 1.5n that you got in the envelope last time now becomes a new nj. We're no longer talking about three possibilities being shoe-horned into 50% chance for each, but 4,5,6..., i.e: an infinite number of possibilities, each of which seems to have a 50% chance of being true at the moment that you consider it. So switching an infinite number of times should yield an infinite amount of money, but that's because you get stuck in a loop that can go on infinitely because the amount of money is indeterminate from the start.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

As in a vivid sleep

Here’s an amazing, haunting poem by L.S. Bevington, from 1876:


Grey the sky, and growing dimmer,
And the twilight lulls the sea;
Half in vagueness, half in glimmer,
Nature shrouds her mystery.

What have all the hours been spent for?
Why the on and on of things?
Why eternity’s procession
Of the days and evenings?

Hours of sunshine, hours of gleaming,
Wing their unexplaining flight,
With a measured punctuation
Of unconsciousness, at night.

Just at sunset, was translucence,
When the west was all aflame;
So I asked the sea a question,
And an answer nearly came.

Is there nothing but Occurrence?
Though each detail seem an Act,
Is that whole we deem so pregnant
But unemphasizèd Fact?

Or, when dusk is in the hollows
Of the hill-side and the wave,
Are things just so much in earnest
That they cannot but be grave?

Nay, the lesson of the Twilight
Is as simple as ’tis deep;
Acquiescence, acquiescence,
And the coming on of sleep.

It’s one in a set of four – “Morning,” “Afternoon,” “Twilight,” and “Midnight” – and I think the best of those though they are all good. Louisa Bevington was an anarchist (Kropotkin came to her funeral, as did the Rossettis) and atheist poet, well versed (so to speak) in Darwin’s theory of evolution. For Tennyson, for the Tractarians, for many others, evolution by natural selection was an unspeakably depressing idea, but Bevington could think about it in a way looking forward to Wallace Stevens’s “Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu”: “In a world without heaven to follow, the stops / Would be endings, more poignant than partings, profounder, / And that would be saying farewell, repeating farewell, / Just to be there and just to behold.”

A world without heaven to follow is one in which the present moment, if it signifies anything at all, can only signify repetition, can only mean its own meaning as a present moment. The possibility of temporary repetition is all it offers. Stevens’s repetition is like Bevington’s “Occurrence.” Things happen and the world is a series (hence the idea of repetition) of things happening. What we, empirical, limited, biological people do is acquiesce, as the penultimate line repeats.

What I find so hauntingly perfect about this poem is what that acquiescence is to. On a first reading it looks allegorical: the coming on of sleep is a harbinger of death, which is always coming on (as in Ashbery’s tonally similar poem “Fear of Death,” with its allusion to Hamlet's very last words). But I think what makes this poem so good is that it doesn’t make sleep a figure for death. It’s not about how we Darwinians have to to acquiesce to our own mortality. Rather our experience as biological beings is the experience of acquiescing to our own experience as natural beings. There is a sort of unmeditated kindness in nature, as simple as it’s deep: the kindness that means we fall asleep every night, as mammals do.

We acquiesce, without any sort of decision, to the part of our nature that is the everyday part of nature. I think what’s most amazing about this is the way that the moment in reading the poem that you realize that it’s about sleep, not about death, is the moment you repeat the experience that it describes. Sleep is real, death is notional. There’s no decision there but simply the fact that we do fall asleep, no working through to a resolution of some ontological anxiety but just a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep. We're fundamentally like all other mammals: we acquiesce as they do to living in the natural world -- the world whose existence we contribute to by being natural beings. The poem doesn’t solve the problem it sets up: it is (as Wittgenstein will say (Tractatus 6.251) about the vanishing of the problem.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Another Abe

Joke title, referring to Kafka's idea of another Abraham.  I am thinking of Kōbō Abe in fact as another Kafka. 

Because I was teaching Woman in the Dunes yesterday -- mainly the movie but also Abe's novel.  He  wrote the very faithful screenplay.  Among the writers Abe knew well was Kafka -- Abe had visited Prague a few years earlier (after the Hungarian revolution, whose suppression disgusted him), so roughly the time the movie and novel start, and when there he did the Kafka tour.

One of the important things I think he saw in Kafka was just how realistic Kafka is.  You're thrown into the world not your own and not yourself but the only world there will ever be for you now, and you live in it.  We all do.

So the explicit allusions to Kafka are at least these: the man in the movie (and novel) is an amateur entomologist, looking for a new kind of beetle (the tiger beetle), which is to say that Gregor Samsa might be there in the sand somewhere.  Well he is -- the easiest irony in the movie is that the man is just like the beetles he's collecting, trapped in the dunes as they in their jars. Eventually he becomes focused on the crows around the pit where he lives, trying to catch one (which he can't), to treat as an unimperial messenger, putting one in mind of Kafka's parable: "The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy the heavens. There is no doubt of that, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for heaven simply means: the impossibility of crows."

As has long been pointed out, the word for crow in Czech is a pun on Kafka's name (the aphorism is in German, but his name does mean crow.  Murakami will do something similar with the character Crow in Kafka on the Shore).  And there's the complaint that the man makes that he is living "like a dog," Josef K's last words in The Trial.

But I think the most crucial connection may be in the moral of the story, which is never quite specific, although the man tells the woman that he has no desire to be in Tokyo, the place she imagines is so wonderful. If he'd liked Tokyo he wouldn't be doing entomology in the dunes.  The moral seems to be from Kafka, from the land-surveyor K's sublime rhetorical question: "Was hätte mich denn in dieses öde Land locken können, als das Verlangen hierzubleiben?“ - "What could have drawn me to this desolate land, if not the desire to stay here?"

That's what the entomologist realizes at the end, his desire to stay there.  The story is about his understanding that he's not the main character.  The woman is.  It's her sorrow, her need, her mourning, her experience that he must learn to take seriously.  So the absolute realism of the movie is this: it's a realistic portrait of a marriage -- of the best that a marriage can be, perhaps, or that human relations can be over time -- which is learning to commit yourself to what you've already been committed to, what circumstances, fate, life, being in the world, have committed you to.  A commitment to commitment in spite of everything.  To others in the same boat, wrecked (as in an early shot in the movie) on the dunes.

Monday, January 16, 2023

William James in 1884: "Our mental life, like a bird's life, seems to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings."

Henry James perhaps remembering this in 1898, has the Governess begin her narrative:  "I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops, a little seesaw of the right throbs and the wrong.