Laugh easy, think hard

In a dopamine-induced trawl of my Twitter feed I ran across someone posting a funny video and saying, essentially, “My humour has a high-bar, and I laughed at this, so it must be funny.” Eughh. What a way to live.

There’s more—though not much: the mild sense of aversion caused by coming across this tidbit of Twitter inspired a maxim: Laugh easy, think hard.

My aversion was, consequently, soothed and a quiet smile came across my features as I imagined a possible future in which I embody the sentiment of that maxim. Ahhhh. What a way to live.

The grey bridge

I’m only a few chapters in, but Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved is turning out to be what Tyler Cowen calls a “quake book”—a book which, upon interaction, sends vast waves of seismic activity through the mind, body and soul. I’ll give you two examples that demonstrate why this is.

First, Levi talks of those who learn of and reconstruct the life and times of the Third Reich and its despicable acts:

“Most historical and natural phenomena are not simple, or, rather, not simple in the way we would like. The network of human relationships inside the concentration camps was not simple: it could not be reduced to two blocs, victims and persecutors. People who read (or write) the history of the camps nowadays have a tendency, indeed a need, to separate evil from good, to take sides, to reenact the gesture of Christ on Judgement Day: over here go the righteous, over there the wicked.”

Why does this passage matter? Simply because those who would recount the deeds of the Nazis in such black-and-whiteness are also committing an atrocity, an atrocity which differs in degree not kind. The Jews were transported to the camps in box cars. Sixty, eighty, a hundred in each. After they arrived, the survivors—many died in transit—tumbled out and were sorted by the SS. To one side went those who could work. To the other went the old, the young, the women, the sickly, the disruptive, and anyone who aroused the ire of a guard. So it seems that those who would judge those who judged the Jews are falling into the clutches of the same great delusion; the existence in reality of “clarity and sharp distinctions”, as Levi put it. Which brings me to the second example, occurring only a few pages later.

“Take a look at the Lager, which–in its Soviet version as well—can serve as a “laboratory”: the hybrid category of inmate-functionaries is both its framework and its most disturbing feature. This category is a gray zone, with undefined contours, which both separates and connects the two opposing camps of masters and servants. It has an incredibly complicated internal structure, and harbors just enough to confound our need to judge.”

What is the name of a structure which both separates and connects? A bridge. Thus:

the grey bridge

The grey is that which allows us to cross the chasm between the black and the white. But not everyone recognises the existence of the bridge, and so many remain stranded, unable to appreciate the things they share with those on the other side of the Great Divide.

Character, revealed

It is my belief that character is revealed in the tails of existence, that we can only know a person by witnessing their deeds in times of extreme adversity and great abundance. But I think I can further refine my position on the revelation of character by introducing another dimension: other people. Extreme adversity and great abundance can be experienced in social circumstances, in the presence of others, or it can be experienced alone, in a solitary fashion. Which gives us the following 2×2, and thus, four ways in which a person’s character can be revealed:

character 2x2

Solitary Adversity is, to me, best exemplified by a passage from John Vailliant’s The Tiger:

“ “The most terrifying and important test for a human being is to be in absolute isolation,” he explained. “A human being is a very social creature, and ninety percent of what he does is done only because other people are watching. Alone, with no witnesses, he starts to learn about himself—who is he really? Sometimes, this brings staggering discoveries. Because nobody’s watching, you can easily become an animal: it is not necessary to shave, or to wash, or to keep your winter quarters clean—you can live in shit and no one will see. You can shoot tigers or choose not to shoot. You can run in fear and nobody will know. You have to have something—some force, which allows and helps you to survive without witnesses.”

Essentially, a person in utter isolation whose only immediate problem is to satisfy the most basic of human necessities—food, water, shelter, warmth—acts in a way that reveals much about themselves. Do they disregard their humanity or cling steadfastly to it? In such a situation how do they perceive and treat themselves, and how do they interact with the environment around them?

Solitary Abundance is somewhat simpler. Imagine that a person is completely free for a day. They get to wake up when they like. They have no constraints on energy, attention or time. They have the material resources to cover anything they could conceivably want to do. They don’t have to be anywhere, see anyone, or do anything. The only obligations they have are those they impose upon themselves? What a person in this situation does reveals much.

How is a person’s character revealed by Social Abundance? Envision a celebration held in a person’s honour. Perhaps it’s their birthday. Or perhaps a particularly good or great deed of theirs is being recognised. How does this person deal with such intense and positive attention? Are they humbled by it? Does it awaken in them a sense of hunger, an animal desire for more time spent towering over others? Is such attention embarrassing, or painful. Does it fill them with pride, with gratitude?

Finally, we come to Social Adversity. And what greater example of this is there than complete and utter humiliation? How does a person respond when they are the butt of the joke? How do they respond when others treat him, not just with dislike, but with an intense aversion, with disgust? When others humans see the person as non-human, does he live up to their expectations and respond to their cruelty with his own malice? Or does he seek to be better than their expectations, enduring the attempted humiliation and disregard with dignity and magnanimity? Does he turn away, attempt to hide himself, or does he do as he has always done, despite the waves of contempt crashing into him?

So, four ways in which character is revealed: via solitary and social abundance, and solitary and social adversity.

Lost in communication

Even during conversations with individuals that I consider to be what Sarah Perry calls “epistemic peers”—those whose processes of thought I respect enough to reveal to them my own—there is still conversational opacity.

For example, imagine I have just described a concept that has been clunking around my mind. The person seems intrigued, so I continue: “Allow me to give you a particular example.” Now, my conversational partner could interpret that sentence as a mere preface to the concept I’d previously described. But I could be hinting at the idea of particular-versus-general concepts. That specific sentence could be my attempt to imply that the concept I’m talking about is domain-dependent, that it doesn’t operate outside of a very specific environment. But the other person might miss that hint, and worse, I may not know that he or she missed it. This is a minuscule example of, not “lost in translation”, but “lost in communication”.

In the deepest and the shallowest conversation, so much of what we know and what we mean remains blocked off to other participants. And to unearth it, to bring it to the fore, requires an extraordinary effort, and more, for us to be in a perpetual state of parallel consciousness. It demands that we always be interpreting what we say from the perspective of the person it’s being said to.

Temporal competence

When throwing a punch, there are a few things to consider:

– The force of the punch.
– The path and point of contact with the target.
– The speed with which it is thrown.
– The time at which it is thrown.

Now, a question: which of these is the most important? The force, the accuracy, the speed or the timing? I believe the answer is demonstrated by a passage from Stephen Erikson’s Midnight Tides:

“ ‘You’re suggesting diabolical genius, Gerun.’
‘I am. Tehol possesses what Hull does not. Knowledge is not enough. It never is. It’s the capacity to do something with that knowledge. To do it perfectly. Absolute timing. With devastating consequences. That’s what Tehol has. Hull, Errant protect him, does not.’ ”

The force of a punch, the accuracy of a punch and the speed of a punch are all made irrelevant if it is not thrown at the right time. The strongest, most accurate, fastest punch will never hit its target if unleashed at the wrong moment. So perhaps, in the practise of our art various arts and disciplines, we should spend less time on the why and the how, and more time on the when? Maybe temporal competence should be just as much a priority as technical competence?

To say a little

In the course of my own writing, and as a consequence of writing and editing for others, I’ve realised that:

To say a little one must know a lot.

Umberto Eco’s description of the ins and outs of a Benedictine monastery’s existence in the fourteenth century took up a relatively small part of the universe—a few hundred pages. But to get those pages pages required a disproportionate amount of toil and thought—seven years, in Eco’s own estimation.

Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is epic, in the best sense of the word. Yet even on the micro, sentence level, the work required is astronomical. For example, there are scenes which take place on a variety of ships and boats, which seems simple enough. But to be real and concrete and effective, those scenes must be packed with understanding. It is not enough for Stephenson to know that his characters are on a boat. No, he must describe the boat to some degree, and to describe it, he must know what sea vessels were prominent and not prominent during that time. He must know who used them and for what purposes. He must grasp their aesthetics and the mechanics of their functions. All for a sentence or two.

Finally, an aphorist like La Rochefoucauld or a philosopher like Seneca the Younger can say, “The world rewards appearances of merit more often than merit itself.” and “…life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.” Succinct. Pithy. Insightful. But these sentiments do not just spring into minds of their utterers via the will of some Divine Power; they are the product of a lifetime of action and reflection.

Of course, it is possible to say a lot whilst knowing a little. But then the person speaking is not so much an author as a charlatan. Unless, however, the author is deliberately eschewing authority on a topic and inviting a reader to accompany him on his explorations, just as I invite you to join me as I think about these things.

The child of a Holocaust survivor

It astounds me that Primo Levi could’ve survived the concentration camps with his humanity intact. I am struck dumb when I think that Elie Wiesel saw babies dashed against trees and woman burned alive and still went on living. I am in awe of all the survivors of trauma and atrocity who manage to retain some seed of normalcy within their hearts. And yet, I was even more astounded to discover that Primo Levi had a son—Renzo, named after Lorenzo Perrone, someone who helped Levi survive imprisonment by giving up part of his ration and bread for six months.

Why? Because while I have seen little of the world, and even less of the true extremes of human nature, I still find many sources of sorrow and despair. For example, when I think about having children I think to myself how great it would be—for me. But soon after, a question arises in my mind. If I put aside my own desires and dreams and ask myself, “Do the possible joys of life outweigh the inevitable suffering?”, I find myself, at times, wanting to answer in the negative. And giving such an answer, how can I knowingly bring another person into being?

Going further, I cannot begin to imagine the strength required of a father like Levi, a father who, truly, saw the best and the worst of us. And I cannot begin to decide whether the birth of Levi’s child was the result of an heroically wise or an heroically foolish choice.