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Knock yourself out

Fabius, a co-ed who seems to have made blowing people away his hobby, made a good case that repetition is incompatible with creativity, which he is right to value. There might be an important difference to be made between specialization and repetition in that specialization can pertain to a field that might include many diverse activities. For example, a good stage actor – or better, a great Shakespearean actor – will have to master different genres, like comedy or tragedy, and all kinds of different characters to win the title. But Fabius’s point is more that if an actor only ever plays McDuff, he’ll be able to recite the part beautifully even after a frat-sized beer bong, but he’ll basically be just a McDuff salary man, contributing little and learning nothing.

Fabius is generally right, but I want to point out the edge of logic where the banal turns sublime.

Exhibit A: Tom Robbins writes some really self-congratulatory books with some really great one liners and appropriately odd characters. Among a transvestite douche mogul; a nymphomaniac, monastic, elderly former internee; and a militantly lesbian ranch hand, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues features as a protagonist a young woman, Sissy, who models to pay the bills but whose true vocation is hitchhiking. Hitchhiking is kind of a natural calling for her because she has freakishly oversized thumbs. She starts out hitchhiking to get away from her abusive, alcoholic father and dimwit mother, but as soon as she tries it, it becomes an end in itself. Even more, she becomes merely a means to that end. She becomes pretty much just a medium with which the ideal form of hitchhiking instantiates itself. She becomes an instrument in the hands of hitchhiking, which/who is the real artisan. When she doesn’t hitchhike, her thumbs itch. [spoiler coming] When she gets one of her thumbs surgically removed and plastically replaced, it’s a partial suicide. It’s tragic, like when the little mermaid trades the voice and her fins, the constituents of herself, for a couple of ordinary feet.

The thing about Sissy that gives her compulsive hitchhiking worth is how she identifies with it. Identity requires difference, and by taking something beyond the edges of good sense and logic, beyond what anyone else has even considered or tried, this space of identification opens. You know that nutjob French Guy who keeps getting arrested for climbing up skyscrapers? Or that nutjob French Guy who eats bicycles and light bulbs? You know why you know them? Exactly. They’ve pushed something beyond the ordinary such that they can identify with it, and you identify them with it. They’ve all taken some activity to the point where it’s not something they do, but the thing they do, and they are its doers.

“It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the way of the samurai. It is the same with anything else that can be called a way. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all ways and be more and more in accord with his own.”

Exhibit B: In Camus’s The Plague, there is one character who does almost nothing but keeps reappearing. There’s this old Spaniard whom the protagonist, a doctor, checks on regularly. A couple of odd points: a) the Spaniard spends all day long moving dried peas, one by one, from one bowl to another, and when the first is empty, he moves them back one at a time; b) he does this while a plague is ravaging the town,* killing scores of people, and the doctor-protagonist keeps checking in on him in the middle of this plague. The Spaniard doesn’t talk, doesn’t leave his apartment, doesn’t reminisce; he grasps a pea and moves it to the bowl to be filled before grasping another and repeating the activity. This transcends even Sissy. Instead of identifying with the activity, the Spaniard has an other thing, an object, and he has dissolved his self in it, letting his subjectivity dissipate in pure action. This activity might not have a definite beginning, and it has no evident end. It just is because he is, or is that backwards?

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing……Only I will remain.”

But we can go further than either Sissy or the Spaniard. Sissy exalted in her activity, and the Spaniard lost himself in his. It’s not clear that either sacrificed, though. Neither of them showed a real commitment to the future. If either Sissy or the Spaniard decided to quit one day, it would be out of character, but they always had the option to jump ship. That’s not always the case.

Exhibit C: Robert Johnson was by many accounts the greatest blues guitarist in the history of the universe, and he probably will be well after our poor little sun suffers its heat death and our descendants are all dust. Like Cobain & Hendrix, he only made it to 27. There’s also an awesome legend about how he got so good, and even though it’s probably not factual, it’s definitely true.

The story is that the devil loves the blues (and of course he would), and he would tune the guitar of any blues man who waited at a crossroads in the dark of a moonless night. So Robert Johnson went to the Crossroads of highway 61 and highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi and waited on the devil. The devil came, and Johnson traded his soul for blues guitar mastery.

The first interesting thing in this case is the exchange. Johnson traded his eternal soul for what turned out to be a few years of greatness. The quid was a momentous sacrifice. There was no going back, no hope of redefinition, nothing but commitment. But what about the quo? That’s the other interesting thing. Playing guitar is different from hitchhiking or moving peas in that there’s something there for others. It’s a performance, an aesthetic experience. And since Johnson sacrificed to be able to share that, his performance has the form of a gift. But many gifts have a quid pro quo element as well – just think of wedding rings. If you wanted to have a gift in its purest, most unadulterated form, you’d need to maximize the sacrifice and obscure the recipient, so that it’s just a generalized, diffuse gift to anyone and everyone. Check and, to a large extent, check.

So Fabius is right. There is a danger in being a one trick pony if all you have to offer yourself and others is repetition for the sake of safety and consistency. But if you push the specialization, the particularity beyond the boundaries of safety and stasis, you can approach the sublime.


Also tu was du nicht lassen kannst.


(Post was written mostly to Tom Tykwer techno.)

*This activity seems somehow far more meaningful than, say, playing Fruit Ninja, but it’s hard to figure out why without getting all Aristotelian, path-of/to-virtue-y. The best I can figure is that all meaning is relational, so even though Candy Crush and moving peas from one bowl to another are about equally meaningless in the abstract, context makes all the difference. For example, if you’re playing Bejeweled while you’re supposed to be doing data entry for PWC, it’s just a boring outlet for your boredom. Ce n’est que l’ennui. But, if you’re on the Titanic, it’s going down and all the other passengers are losing their minds, and you sit down and start playing solitaire or opt to finish your chocolate mousse, then you might be approximating the sublime, i.e. sublimating. There seems much more to say about this. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Categories: Psychology.


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7 Responses

  1. Excellent!

    1. Exhibit D: The entire discography of The Field, who just keeps on looping and looping and looping and… But why does The Field work? Because, at the end of the day, he leaves his music as it is – he discards it. The secret to The Field lies in its song Sun& Ice:

    “Pitchfork: You mix it live, all the elements?

    Field: Yeah, I mix it live to two channels, I have no return [laughs], I can’t get it back…or I’d have to rearrange the whole song in a way.

    Pitchfork: So you do it multiple times and pick one?

    Field: I usually pick one that I’m satisfied with, I rewrite the song. Sometimes it happens of course that I make two or three different takes of one track. Always, almost always, it’s the first one I’m satisfied with.

    Pitchfork: So in “Sun & Ice”, like, five minutes in…

    Field: Yeah, that was a mistake. That was the delay, like, overloaded in a way. The whole computer started to make that noise, distortion and stuff.

    Pitchfork: And you left it in there?

    Field: Yeah, I can’t work with a track, I can’t go back to a track. ”

    I am about to rewrite my review for season 1 of Breaking Bad. Should I just re-open the document and “fix mistakes”? No, I’ll have to rewrite it from scratch.

    The Field, by the way, is excellent music to write to!


    2. “One has to learn being a Cineaste for 25 years. Within one instant one has, after twenty five years of filming, writing and cutting, reached a point of maturity. Le Cercle Rouge is the result of this maturity.” — But, of course, Melvilles best movie was Le Samourai – it didn’t feature Alain Delon with a ridiculous moustache…

  2. SkepticalChemistOctober 21, 2013 @ 8:43 pm

    From my experience as a twentysomething still-in-college student and as an adult you are admonished for curiosity or intellectual breadth as indicators of lack of focus. You are supposed to be an expert as an adult – depth but no breadth.

    The irony is that the really successful people, i.e. the people who have changed the world, are both intellectually curious and hard workers, but in a world of hard works, its their intellect that stands out.

    But it’s a lot harder to explain to people why they should learn a bit of history and philosophy and physics before they get an MBA then it is to tell them to “just focus on your goal” , which is invariably some dollar figure.

    For me, English which I learned mostly through autodidactism has opened up worlds of information to me and I have identified with it so much that it has replaced my first language. If you also add other subjects that one can indulgence in effortlessly through the Internet, for a while it was unimagenably hard to focus on my major, chemistry. I have yet to spend 10.000 hours on PhD to see if I can reach the sublime you are talking about or will be sublimated through the process.

  3. OccaionallyCleverOctober 23, 2013 @ 5:10 am

    Fascinating read, and I meant to thank you for the funny Futurama link to my last post, before I got way too caught up in my reinterpretation of the Apple commercial. That comment literally took up half my workday. Anyhow…

    It’s interesting that the exhibits you provide of banality approaching the sublime are all clearly fictional. The closest thing to a real event is Robert Johnson, and even then it’s an urban legend, attributed to everyone from James Brown to the Rolling Stones.*

    Is it because, in reality we don’t actually consider what they do sublime except for when the story around it is structured to present it this way?

    Or is it because it’s too easy to ascribe ulterior motives to the people who do seemingly sublime things in real life? For example, the band on the Titanic played music as it went down. They repeated the same pieces they’ve practiced all their lives. Is the gift for all the people on board, or to no one at all, or to God? Was it to keep everyone from panicking? Was it because they are musicians and that’s what musicians want to be the last thing they literally do? Who can really say?

    As to your reference to Camus’ the Plague, I’m reminded of Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, which has the most beautiful ending of any piece of drama I’ve ever seen. It involves impending catastrophe and two couples from different time periods waltzing in the exact same space, crossing over each others’ paths but never quite colliding. None of the characters are aware of an imminent death that will occur moments after the scene ends. But because the audience is aware of it, of how time and space and just about all human endeavours will end in entropy, but that at the same time there will be order in that entropy, this dramatic irony produces a truly sublime experience even in audience members who didn’t quite get everything expounded on in the play (like myself).

    To come back to The Plague, is approximating the sublime really about how ‘impending’ the doom is? Aren’t we all going to ‘go under’ sooner or later? Why is it seen as exalted to seemingly waste time when you have very little of it, yet the opposite is true when you have ‘all the time in the world’?

    And what of mandalas? One is constructed through the course of the film Samsara, and then almost immediately erased once it has been completed. To someone who doesn’t know that it’s an abstract depiction of the universe, watching four monks create what looks like a Persian rug made of sand, and then watching them scoop it all up into a bag must seem like the height of pointlessness. But knowing that these actions form a ritual that allows the ‘artists’ to enter a meditative trance, and that this ritual is itself a metaphor for the universe, makes mandalas sublime. It’s also a question I’d like to pose to GuyFox. In the process of making these things the maker is supposed to be contemplating the universe. They’re supposed to make them so many times that they don’t have to make them to recall every single detail. At the same time they are finding meaning in this depiction of the universe, wrestling with new ideas formed from relating a seemingly irrelevant pattern to their worldview. Are they scholars of mandalas? Or thinkers?

    Maybe it doesn’t matter what pursuit you choose, so long as you can see it for what it is: a mandala. A way for you to apply all the setbacks and victories you encounter on your path to mastery of your chosen impermanent thing (after all, nothing will be remembered after the sun’s death) to solving the big problem of why everything is the way it is. In other words, GuyFox, are not all thinkers really “scholars of the universe”?

    *Here’s a funny variation on the “musician accepts Faustian bargain” story: The Rolling Stones trade their souls in exchange for music that will live forever. But where this leads to an early death for Johnson, Jagger, Richards and the gang are forced to perform the same classics for all eternity. Sure they put up a good front, but watch a live performance of Jumping Jack Flash today and tell me they don’t all look at least a little ghoulish.

  4. OccaionallyCleverOctober 23, 2013 @ 5:11 am

    Ah fuck, I realize I mixed up the authors to these two articles. Profuse apologies.

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