For the past three years, I’ve taken the train to go visit my family in the summer and at Christmas time. It’s a 21-hour long ride. I’ve learnt through bitter experience that it is impossible to sleep until past dawn, and then only because you’re completely knackered. There always seems to be a character on board who compulsively needs a drink of water, the restroom, a visit to the dining car or a chance to stretch their legs, regardless of the hour.

I used to pack heavy reading in my carry-on, thinking that a long ride would afford me all the time I needed to finally get to grips with ____________. But serious reading requires serious concentration, and that person in seat 31 just got up again to stomp past my seat and to open the door leading to the next train car, letting in all the noise of metal wheels clanking over metal rails.

Some time ago I struck upon a different strategy, which is to read a couple of Harlequin novels I’d bought at the grocery store the day before my trip. This plan has worked out brilliantly. I am very pleasantly distracted from my surroundings, so that when the cabin attendant kindly comes by to hand out little pillows, I barely acknowledge him : “Attends un peu, le duc Pressé est en train de foutre Mlle Volontiers….;” By the time the sun is up and we’ve crossed state lines, I am fast asleep with a bemused smile on my face.

While I’ve recycled the novels themselves, I can’t quite do away with the book covers. Instead, I’ve trimmed and pasted them on to my bedside table. Pour vous faire plaisir, j’inclus cette photo:

Proceeding from the top row to the bottom and from left to right in each case, my collection thus far includes: “One Night with a Sweet Talking Man”, “Angelo’s Captive Virgin”, “The Tutor”, “His Mistress, His Terms”, “Mr. Cavendish, I Presume”, “Twelve Gauge Guardian”, ”Unlawful Contact” and “Bedded by Blackmail”. My table is a little less than half full, and I will be traveling again. Lurid covers and amusing titles are welcome if anyone can spare the thought.



Ezra, the question with which you end your post on food reminds me of Natalie Merchant, whom I saw perform two weeks ago on the last night of the West Chester Poetry Conference in Pennsylvania. There was an interview with her in the afternoon, during which she talked about her newest album, the one she sang from. Its lyrics are all poems (mostly all old-ish) and nursery rhymes, and the melodies (she says she can write melodies till the cows come home, but lyrics kill her) are catchy and varied. I bought the CD before the concert, and haven't regretted it; I've been listening to it on repeat for weeks as I prime backings and hang paintings and clean up leftover debris in our house from the art show that I just put up. I have a number of new poems to love from that CD, though they're hard for me to read now (I want to sing them). One of my favorites is this, by Ogden Nash (written for his daughter):

Adventures of Isabel

Isabel met an enormous bear,
Isabel, Isabel, didn't care;
The bear was hungry, the bear was ravenous,
The bear's big mouth was cruel and cavernous.
The bear said, Isabel, glad to meet you,
How do, Isabel, now I'll eat you!
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry.
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She washed her hands and she straightened her hair up,
Then Isabel quietly ate the bear up.

Once in a night as black as pitch
Isabel met a wicked old witch.
The witch's face was cross and wrinkled,
The witch's gums with teeth were sprinkled.
Ho, ho, Isabel! the old witch crowed,
I'll turn you into an ugly toad!
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry,
She showed no rage and she showed no rancor,
But she turned the witch into milk and drank her.

Isabel met a hideous giant,
Isabel continued self reliant.
The giant was hairy, the giant was horrid,
He had one eye in the middle of his forhead.
Good morning, Isabel, the giant said,
I'll grind your bones to make my bread.
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She nibbled the zwieback that she always fed off,
And when it was gone, she cut the giant's head off.

Isabel met a troublesome doctor,
He punched and he poked till he really shocked her.
The doctor's talk was of coughs and chills
And the doctor's satchel bulged with pills.
The doctor said unto Isabel,
Swallow this, it will make you well.
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She took those pills from the pill concocter,
And Isabel calmly cured the doctor.

Merchant's inspiration for this approach to an album came in part from raising her daughter, now seven, and I am delighted with it partly because it is a creativity so rooted in passing something on to someone, for the love of it. I'm asking your question, too, Ezra; who am I going to pass things on to? Maybe partly to memorialize myself -- but also just because the things are good! And there are so many of them, and they are so worth passing on. Maybe I will still have children; but if not, I want to make sure I live a life that is intentional about passing good things on. And for the record: I like your egg-and-cheese sandwich preparation approach. With a patiently unbroken yolk and the cheese melted open-face, it might be nearly perfect.



One can always talk about food. One can always talk over food. One can always let oneself not-talk when one is eating.

I have just finished reading "Letter from Istanbul: The Memory Kitchen" in the April 19, 2010, New Yorker. Though I work in a restaurant, I have at no point seriously entertained making food my life. I mean that I haven't really thought about becoming a food writer, nor have I thought about pursuing any more formal training in cuisine than my current work. I'm not about to head off to culinary school, and I'm certainly not going to pursue a degree in food sociology. I won't even move to another restaurant to learn another cuisine.

And yet I am moved by the idealism of many chefs. In this case I have in mind Musa Dağdeviren, the subject of the article I've just finished. He argues that good cuisine, interesting cuisine, reflects geography (as opposed to ethnicity, e.g.). He argues that it reflects culture. His three restaurants in Istanbul serve dishes as they are made elsewhere in Turkey; and when he travels to buy gathered herbs or female turkeys, he asks people what they serve at weddings, what they serve at funerals, and so on.

These questions are part of what caught my attention. What is the scope of my own eating? I can answer easily about love for diner food and the ritual breakfasts I have with friends at different establishments, but the more revealing answer would reflect what I do in my own kitchen, even if I don't gather my own ingredients or often bake my own bread.

Tonight I melted butter in a pan and put two slices of (bought) whole wheat bread down to brown. I poured pre-shredded cheese onto the slices of bread, then put them together. I put the sandwich in my toaster oven to melt the cheese through, and in the hot little pan I fried a single egg, which I later put in the sandwich. The whole process was inelegant. I had to pry the sandwich open after melting it shut, and I wasn't patient enough with my fried egg: I accidentally broke the yolk. Yet the result was mine. No one has ever taught me to make and egg and cheese sandwich just that way.

Whom, if anyone, will I teach?


Bad Accent, Good Gag

Courtesy of Theresa. And no, I did not ever think this was actually Werner Herzog...

M. C. Hammer Slide, XKCD


She Seemed Slightly Unnerved to Discover Me in the Trash

In Oregon, the lilacs are blooming; in Ithaca it snowed two days ago. My friend Steve Froehlich told me about the snow, and added that he had been dumpster-diving in it. In response to my asking whether he’d converted to freeganism, he told me the story below. Sheryl is his wife; he himself is a Presbyterian minister, six feet tall and broad-shouldered, with a mop of reddish-brown hair and pale blue laughter-filled eyes. And Karl is a mutual friend, the perfect straight man.

“Sheryl stopped by the recycling dumpster at the apartment complex up the street yesterday morning to make a contribution on her way to work. Somehow... somehow... (talk about straining a brain to figger out)... she threw in her Garmin super watch GPS computer exercise calculator that calibrates data from her heart monitor and bicycle to create holographic charts of her workout sessions all to the accompaniment of Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto. Yes, it's expensive. Yes, she's quite attached to her little digital friend. Yes, she was undone. So, she called me from the office to explain her plight, and I immediately set out to retrieve it. It was snowing -- weird wet glooppy snowflakes that had managed to get the contents of the dumpster cold and slackered together. I saw no alternative but to get into the dumpster to look for this lost treasure. I pushed my way through cardboard and lots of other things that are not easily mistaken for paper products but were in there anyway. With the wind blowing proudly, it was like I was trapped in a windtunnel with all the trash sucked up by the wind and swirling all around me.

After an hour of unsuccessful hunting, I gave up, but not before a woman walking her dog came up to make a contribution. She seemed slightly unnerved to discover me in with the trash. When I stood up, doing my best to be cheery and nonchalant, I started to explain that we'd lost something and I was trying... but she turned and walked away before I finished -- clearly she wanted no knowledge of my presence to trouble her consciousness.


Karl is of the opinion that I now have enough chips to cash in that will last me well into next year.”

[Note to the curious: Steve went back for more systematic diving later, and after fully clearing the second corner of the dumpster, discovered the Garmin.]


Awareness and Self Awareness

In the last few weeks I've engaged in several conversations with a good friend of mine about awareness or "mindfulness." We've used these terms to name one of the goals of meditation, and we might say that we both strive to be more mindful. But one of my brothers pointed out to me that this language can be empty. While we are awake, we are conscious. To be conscious is to be aware. We are only completely unaware (if at all) when we sleep. We are mindful of something all the time.

Does being "mindful" mean being mindful of everything that there is? – or of as much of that as one can be? Or should we perhaps specify the things of which we think we ought to be mindful as often or as continuously as possible?

I am with Stephanie in advocating a greater mindfulness of the pleasures available to us. Today was my birthday, and I took a variety of pleasures: I had a sense of accomplishment; I took pleasure in the company I kept; I took gustatory pleasure (paying special attention to the smells of my food and drink); I noted with pleasure the changing colors of the sky as the sun went away; and I marked a certain freedom that I felt (linked both to the day's accomplishments and to the pleasure I took in my good company) as I walked out into the evening air.

I advocate not only knowing and noting one's pleasures, but identifying and holding onto the pleasures that one imagines, whether one aims ever to achieve them or whether they are fantasy purely. In fact, I have been keeping a kind of journal of my pleasures, specifically erotic ones. This document doesn't seem especially interesting to me now, but if I reread it in a year or more, I expect to learn myself better.


A List of Pleasures

Lately I have been thinking about pleasure, and have concluded that I do not take it into account enough in my decision-making. In large decisions, like "what should I do with my life?" I have made long strides toward discounting messiah-complex impulses like "I can't do that; it would be too much fun (and therefore selfish, and therefore immoral)." I now want to write and teach, not because I think I can save the world by doing those things (I can't, either that way or any other way) but because I love writing and teaching, and because I think they are worthwhile things to do, and, yes, because I have seen them have positive effects on people's lives.

If the term "gift" is a valid description of a thing I am good at, then being gifted involves a counterpart, a receiver. If no one read books (or blogs, or words) at all, if there were no students, writing would be much-changed, and teaching could not exist. The satisfaction of the gift, the pleasure of it, can't be separated from its being given and received. But in smaller decisions I am not yet wise in the value of pleasure; my lists of things to do for a day rarely make conscious choice for enjoyment. Certainly there are cases when something else supersedes seeking pleasure -- this is called discipline, and it is good. It leads in the end to a greater, deeper pleasure, or even to a good of a higher order than pleasure (say, justice). But in the absence of a legitimate reason to set pleasure aside, pleasure should be sought, I have now concluded, it ought to be sought. For it it is not the highest good there is, but nonetheless it is a real, and legitimate, and wonderful good.

Toward the end of seeking pleasure more intentionally, I propose a list of pleasures on this blog. If you are not a regular contributor and would like to add an item (or many), please drop me an e-mail or leave a comment, and we'll get your pleasures posted.

Today, from me, three pleasures of shape:

1. The fluid concreteness of the hand-carved olivewood elephant I got off a shelf at my grandmother's house, after she died, the night before the estate sale:

2. The two baby cactuses which have been sprouting valiantly ever since I carried them, wrapped in damp paper towels inside a yogurt cup with plastic wrap rubber-banded across its top, from Sarah Widercrantz's kitchen in Ithaca, NY, to my parents' house in Portland, Oregon:

3. The shape of a sunny, cool afternoon in a city full of tall pine trees, when nothing is urgent, and one has time to ride along on peaceful errands with a person one likes, sitting in the passenger seat and not counting minutes.


Non-genre Writing and Non-Nonfiction

Hannah’s 2. 22. post continues a thread on genre writing (which is to say, “non-literary” fiction) as not getting fair respect for excellence. That thread began last year in her “Tour de Bookcases,” and is sending me off into all sorts of questions. I'll start with one for today.

The idea of genre writing as inferior was certainly accepted among fiction writers in Cornell’s MFA program—"genre" was a put-down. Or at least whenever I heard it used, it sounded like that.

So the first question is: Why? And I think the fiction writers would have answered, because generally Harlequin is formulaic, and so is mystery, and so is a lot of sci-fi and fantasy. And so is a lot of what is called realism, of course, but realism does not therefore get categorically excluded from "literariness." (Maybe because if it did, there would be little left.) As I've heard the term "literary" used, it seems intended to describe writing that is non-formulaic, that challenges readers, maybe even feeds them; at any rate it does something significantly more than provide the bookish equivalent of sugar candy.

I wonder whether this exclusion of genre writing has a parallel in certain "Do not" rules taught in English classes—"do not end on prepositions" "do not use passive voice" "do not split infinitives." These rules are really about style, not grammar, and they are a shorthand that makes English teachers' lives easier: rather than having to explain "that's not graceful," they can point to the broken rule. But the downfall is that occasionally, ending on a preposition is the graceful thing; occasionally, not splitting the infinitive makes the sentence awkward. And the rule needs breaking in order to fulfill its original intent. Otherwise, to quote Churchill, ending on prepositions becomes something "up with which we will not put."

I also wonder whether the put-downs against genre writing make any interesting parallels to the put-downs against nonfiction (an unfortunate name, defined already as a lack). This article by Richard Nixon (not the president) is an insightful commentary on nonfiction as a literarily under-appreciated form of writing.


Riding Off and All That

Yo Peeps,

Keats got me a little, though sorry to say, Goodie, he left you out. But tautologies don’t work so well three-way. And don’t go nitpicky, True, lovey; maybe what he said isn’t a tautology at all. But it’s reversible anyhow, so I’m a fan—and also, it takes me seriously. Shame, really, that now almost everyone referring to him makes him measure of wish-that-were-true.

Devils: sure. For being universals and transcendents, my dear family, you’re all a bit dim in the eyes. First of all, you should see his horse. No one riding Night could really be evil, as you would all know if you’d been there, and if you bothered looking animals in the eyes. Which you must—how can you live otherwise? D. has a brother, too, and we go on long walks and he says the most provocative things and can’t keep his eyes off me, but even much too far away for anyone to hear me if I screamed, I always feel safe with him. Well—safe’s the wrong word. He burns my mouth when we kiss.

Where we walk is volcanic, and the volcano is old and has gone back to sleep but the last time she blew she changed the face of this place, miles of ash, mud, miles of force become matter, and the land unable, even thirty years later, to lie still. The rocks are pale green, deep red. Everywhere are rims ready to avalanche. And yet there’s a beaver-pair damming already, there are stunted firs with deep yellow needles, there are patches of turf hanging over the edges of precipices, not letting go.

He’s the caretaker here, though I don’t see how anyone could take care of this, and when he’s with me he’s never actually doing anything other than grabbing me before I vanish over some new ledge. His name’s Justice. I guess it’s working, though: between tremors, in the breathless-smooth pools, you can count stars at night. And if you have patience for it, you can trace bullfrogs by their sound, and see them swell and boom, swell and boom.



Tough Love


Allow me to channel your sister Truth for a bit and be blunt. I don't want to hurt you, but you need to understand where you came from before I can answer your question.

You say that Truth would tell you that when love is elsewhere, it can't be with you. But that's exactly why I needed you, daughter. There is too much for me to do to be everywhere at once, and so I made you and your sisters with specific aspects of who I am, to try to bring part of my love to the places I am not.

You're going to ask why I left you in that tower if I wanted you to do work for me. But you're my children, darling, not my creations, so I had to let you grow up and figure out what you were supposed to be doing on your own.

Goodness isn't the highest aim. Neither is truth or beauty or joie de vivre. Love is the highest aim. Goodness that grows out of love will be happy; goodness without love can be neither happy or good. I understand you want to rebel against me, daughter, and I'm sorry to give you such a hard truth. I want you to learn to be good, and happy, because you are loving. Being good will not necessarily make you happy, but I hoped that learning to be happy could make you more loving: and therefore more good.

I chose a hard life for you when I gave you the attribute of Goodness, my dear daughter. You have fulfilled the letter of your duty admirably. You say you are crushed that you haven't done enough for me: but there will never be enough for me. I will always want more from you because I want to make you and your sisters perfect. But I will also always give you more of myself.


your mother


What's Love Got To Do With It?

Dear Mom,

Of course it falls to me, the virtuous one, to respond first to your letter. But strange as it may sound, I don't have much good to say. Shall I open sarcastically by thanking you for the reminder that love has business elsewhere? That hardly seems charitable. And of course it's Truth's job to say that when love is elsewhere, it isn't here, and when it isn't here, it isn't. I'm sure she'll get around to writing pretty soon.

Will you explain to me once and for all why I've got to enjoy doing good? You foisted goodness on me, you named me, and you stipulated my duty. So I'm good now, or I'm goodness itself, but I needn't pretend to be happy. Plenty of people have imagined that doing good will make a person happy. Of course! But they are all making a big mistake: they want to motivate people to be good by promising a positive personal result; but as I know all too well, being good and being happy needn't go hand in hand. Borrowing rhetoric from the hedonists, or trying to make goodness into it's own form of hedonism ("The real pleasure is in being good...") is worse than just nonsense. It makes me look selfish, and it's degrading.

Mother, you know I do my best. But sometimes I lose track of myself. Are you honestly encouraging me to argue in order to recover my joie de vivre? And if so, are you saying that goodness isn't the highest aim, but that joie de vivre is? Are you saying that some kind of competitiveness is necessary for the good to keep going? If you are, I wish you'd named me Better, or even Best. Being good all the time is hard, and I'm crushed to find that it still isn't enough for you.

Forgive me for speaking so openly. I'm not exactly rebelling, Mother, but it's possible that I've lost my way. I'd by lying if I said that Love didn't have its hooks in me, and we all know just how confusing Love can be, especially when it's your mother.

I am, most devotedly,

Your daughter.


A Maternal Exhortation to Wayward Daughters

Dearest daughters:

I'm sad to see you fighting among yourselves like this. Didn't I teach you better?

Truth, who told you to stay in that tower? Really, dear, I thought you'd have realized by now that you can't do any good if no one can hear what you have to say. Your sisters have learned that at least. Get out. See the world. Find your sisters, if you don't know what else to do.

Goodness -- it's lovely that you're helping people, but you needn't sound so self-sacrificing about it! You've learned that you need to be a doer, but you mustn't just do: you must let yourself enjoy it. It's in your nature to enjoy the work you're doing, if you'd just stop being uptight and worrying about what Truth tells you. Of course you can't win against nature and time. That's why you're needed.

Beauty, my dearest baby: couldn't you make time to visit your sisters once in a while? You look better with them than you ever could alone, you know. Bring your devilish friend; maybe if Goodness has someone to argue with she'll recover some of her joie de vivre. You were right to go gallivanting off, my dear. You were the first to realize I never meant you to stay in that tower forever, but you need to come home, at least occasionally.

I look forward to seeing you all as soon as I can get free of my business elsewhere.

Your devoted mother,


Goodness To Truth, A Difficult Letter Indeed

Dear Truth,

I wish I could say it was always pleasant to hear from you. Of course I miss our days together in the tower, but you always knew I couldn't be happy there, sitting around. Now, out on the barricades—why, I could almost be happy, if it weren't for your carping in my ears. This is why I haven't written until now.

Why do you hurt me this way? You tell me that I'm powerless against time and against nature. You remind me that bad will keep on happening even if I root out evil. You tell me how many people like Beauty better than me. But isn't the youngest sister always spoiled? A lot of people don't like you either, and for good reason.

You ruin happy families. You try your hardest to show your sisters up or put us down; and you do it well, with words that cut our clothing into shreds. Naked, Beauty may get by all right. But no one wants to see Goodness in the nude. I'm hard, and I'm emaciated, and I'm so good people get scared that they can never live up to me. But if you would keep quiet and let me do my work in dignity, even in disguise, I could get a lot more done and be a lot happier.

I do need you, Sister; and I do miss you when I plunge this far into battle; it is even a comfort to know that you are there, keeping the tower in order and making the books of use—

But for now, since you won't come out to help me (and I know you probably can't) I wish you would please shut up and not write to me for a while.

I love you, really I do.



To Beauty, with Love

Dear Beauty,

Maybe you never answer my letters because the address I have for you is wrong. That story the townspeople told about you riding off with the devil –- could it be they were lying? Since Goodness left, saying she can’t be herself in an armchair with books only, that she’s a doer, I haven’t heard from her either, though I’ve written to the poorhouse once a week. That’s where they said she went. And it’s not like her to ignore a letter –- you, I never know about; you always took strange fancies. But Goodness -– well, if I can’t trust her, where does that leave me?

So now I’m beginning to wonder whether this tower is the right place even for me. I dearly love these books. But they are coming to feel too small to hold me. Where are you?

Yours quizzically,

Theresa’s post on truth, beauty, devils, goodness, cookies, and Dangerous Liaisons raised all sorts of interesting questions for me, especially about beauty. If we are going to grant this classic triad of transcendent values (and for now, let’s, though that is a whole other interesting argument to have), then it seems one of the essential things about them is that each one is inherently valuable. Each is in itself worth pursuing, and needs no source outside itself to prove its value.

Another important thing about these three is that they are conceived of as a unity. In order to be ultimately good, something must be propositionally true, morally good, and perceptively beautiful. They are equal, and special, and unified, precisely because each to some extent requires the others. And so our thought-experiment, in splitting them into three persons with separate wills, is misrepresenting them a little from the get-go. Keats said truth is beauty; I’d say real truth must be beautiful, and real beauty must be true. And I’d extend this reciprocity to goodness.

There are all kinds of problems with the little missive I’ve given Truth above. For one, if she’s Truth, shouldn’t she know where Beauty is? My favorite problem, though, is the question of the trustworthiness of beauty. Can beauty lie to us? Can beauty be evil, or at least, can it be subverted and used to further ends that are evil?

This is a question that I have not heard raised in the same way with goodness and truth. Things can be made to look true, certainly, even though they are false; but this is a subversion, if anything, of reason, not a subversion of truth. No matter how it is presented or perceived, a statement is either true or it is a lie. In the same way, things can be made to look good even though they are evil, but this is hypocrisy or self-righteousness or, again, lying; it is not a subversion of goodness. And yet with beauty we think differently; when something appears attractive, or interesting, or entertaining or awe-inspiring, in spite of being unjust or untrue, we say beauty itself has been subverted to the ends of oppression or falsehood. If someone told us Truth and Goodness had run away with a dashing devil, we’d ask What have you been smoking? But when we’re told Beauty took his hand and hopped on the black stallion behind him and rode down into hell, we shake our heads sadly and say What a shame.

I think we’re wrong; I think we don’t know Beauty very well at all.


Story and Message Update

I just wanted to post a quick update to this post with this link to an interesting post on genre writers and the lack of respect they get. I'm particularly struck by the idea that once a work of science fiction becomes "literature," it is no longer considered science fiction...


Truth, Beauty and the Great Cookie War

But first, a fairy tale :

A long, long time ago, there were three sisters who lived together in a magnificent castle. Each morning Truth, Goodness and Beauty would ascend the stairs of the castle’s highest tower in order to do their work, away from the noisy bustle of the cooks and maids or the clamour of the townsfolk below. Ensconced in their favourite chairs in one corner of the room were Truth and Goodness, who loved nothing better than writing books, reading them or arguing about them. Sometimes Beauty would attempt to contribute a little something to the discussion, but mostly she sat by herself, delicately illuminating capitals or embroidering the book cover for a finished work. After a number of years spent in this way, she came to regard this division of labour as grossly unfair and very tedious indeed.

One morning, as the sisters climbed up the stairs, heavy manuscripts tucked under their arms, Beauty lagged behind the rest. Since, for some time now, their communal work held little interest for her, she had started to allow herself some delay on the steps so as to recoup some of the enjoyment that would be denied her later. She took great pleasure in the clear ring of her well-made shoes on the stonework, or feeling a kiss of sunlight upon her cheek coming in from the tower windows. And even though her heart was starved for admiration, it was generous enough nonetheless to marvel at the sparkle and dance of dust motes in the air.

It happened one day, while Beauty was caught in a reverie such as this, that she heard a great commotion outside. Taking a peek, she saw a splendid devil riding into town. He was dressed in black, which seemed severe, but around his cloak and boots were such exquisite detail as made him seem quite irresistibly mysterious. His noble features and straight carriage broadcast an allure only enhanced by its aloofness. The townspeople, awestruck at this apparition in their midst, cried and shouted, wailed and shrieked to capture his attention. Beauty, too, was quite enchanted. She dashed out into the street without a thought for her sisters. The crowd made way for her, subdued in an instant by her, a rival for their adoration. Young maidens, idlers, nursemaids, rugged young men, olds maids, the spindly widower and the town shrew all fell silent, watching with bated breath to see what would occur between Beauty and the devil. He, who knows how to seize a prize when he sees one, held out his hand for her. And she, feeling curiously as though she were doing him both a great favour and causing tremendous inconvenience – so tender was his concern and so perfect his solicitude- settled in behind him on his steed. Then they took off in great haste. Some say that the devil’s mount and that of his entourage grew wings and flew up to the sun. All that is certain is that Beauty was never seen in that realm again. Nor has she made any very great effort to remain in touch with her sisters. Sometimes her brief notes to them are scribbled on the devil’s private correspondence. At other times, consorting with one of his minions perhaps, she sends a post card instead. A long silence typically follows, but another letter arrives as soon after a reconciliation has been effected . It’s true, she can last for only so long without his wit and charm, qualities he possesses in such measure as she has been unable to find in anyone else. For their part, Truth and Goodness have over the years compiled a three volume response to their sister’s antics, but the tome continues to languish in a post office, unclaimed.


On a Saturday Tau asks me whether we can bake cookies for Sigma, whose feelings were hurt in a game she lost. If this were any other kid but the tender-hearted Tau making this request, I would see it simply as a poor ruse to score some sweet stuff. We bake the cookies, and to the children’s immense delight, it turns out that the recipe on the back of the chocolate chip packet produces an unusually high yield. At some point, against well-established protocol, Sigma sneaks more than her fair share of the first batch to emerge from the oven. Further temptation is swiftly expelled from our house as we give all but twelve of the remaining cookies away to the neighbours. Sigma will get nothing, but her siblings Ro and Tau, innocent of all wrongdoing, will each receive two cookies for dessert in the evening. Two cookies per kid per day says that this whole debacle will be over in thee days. Not so: On day 2 there is only half a cookie left in the cupboard. The investigation that follows produces depressing results: Ro, as is her way, attempts to convince me of her innocence by assuming an arch tone intended which alone is supposed to brook any disagreement. Unfortunately, her plan is flawed, because she practices, out loud, in front of all us, where to place the stress so as to hit open the most superior-sounding rendition : “ I swear I didn’t take any (ad personam ). I swear I didn’t take any (ad juram). No, I swear I didn’t take any (ad minisculam). Tau has nothing to declare, except the holy truth: No, she did not take any cookies. As for Sigma, let the effort to talk a triangle into a square begin: all you have to do is believe ! Her feints may not always adept, but they are delivered swiftly, like a street fighter with his back to the wall. Even as Ro and Sigma continue to irritate me with their fibbing, I find myself admiring, delighting even, in their ingenuity.

I am defending truth, they untruth, yet my stance is less adversarial than competitive. I want to prove to these kids that confessing the truth is better and more pleasing than lying. This takes a great deal of time and craft.

And Tau ? Her “yes” is her “yes” : she has neither stolen the cookies nor lied to me about stealing them. Although she is the only one to have behaved well, Tau is the one who goes to bed without dessert and with only a fraction of the attention that was paid to her sisters.

While it is perfectly possible to love all three kids equally, I am uncertain as to whether I can be equally just in my love for each of them.


Laclos’ Dangerous Liasons is also concerned with the unjust reward of innocent goodness. The brilliant and redoubtable Marquise de Merteuil immediately intrigues. A femme fatale in every sense, she is as dazzling as she is wicked, as wise as she is cruel and simply fascinating to watch. Her letters, and that of her equally depraved and masterful accomplice, the Vicomte de Valmont, are by far the most compelling. And their victim, the pure and virtuous Présidente de Tourvel? Valmont seduces her after an arduous campaign on his part. She loses her mind and dies shortly after in a cloister. Her writing is in no way memorable, except in the most annoying way, that of interrupting our reading about the adventures of Merteuil and Valmont.

However, a recent re-reading has made me reevaluate my stance towards the Présidente. I have been uncharitable: her beauty, that of a pure conscience and a virtuous heart, is subdued and cannot, by nature of its very consistency, appeal in the same way as the restless, spectacular machinations of the Marquise.


The truth of a matter (someone dumped me) might be of great interest (because they found someone else) and might even set me free, as the saying goes (I can pursue a new relationship), but this is not to say that it is interesting (this scenario is common enough), or that this knowledge gives any guarantee of my happiness (unless I find someone better than my ex).

As someone who lives for stories, I am naturally allied with artifice. Parables, metaphors, analogies, grey areas, wiggle room, white lies and tales of every kind are needed to filter the Truth so that we can approach it, be puzzled, think about it some more and learn. My complaint against Truth is only this: that is too great. As an absolute, it cannot temper its harsh light, but shines regardless of whether it shrivels us in its glare.

Virtue has exactly the opposite problem: it is far too dull. All great art as well as the arc of science depends on the tension between what we ought to do and what we want to do, what we can do and what cannot do. Who can resist entering the fray and being crowned with glory? Who prefers to languish by the nearer shore, just to be called “good”?

Beauty of course is not painful to look at, nor is it boring. Instead, we want to feast our eyes on what is beautiful. Too often, Beauty is accused of being empty, pretty on the outside but mindless otherwise. The accusation is unfair : Beauty provides the mind with a necessary rest, burdens the heart with nothing else except to enjoy itself while it renews our senses.


Truth is harsh and Virtue is monotonous. If this is the case, it hardly seems possible for them to be beautiful. Yet, as is the case in affirming the basic goodness of Man (despite much evidence to the contrary), I would rather first concede, because it is better for my soul to do so, that my palate is blunted by the taste for only one kind of beauty, which makes Truth and Virtue, by comparison, seem not nearly as attractive to me.


I ought to value Tau’s honesty far more greatly than the cleverness of her sisters. I had taken it for granted precisely because I can count on it. A comfort and an obedient child who makes life easier, she is overlooked. Her sisters, by contrast, are impossible to ignore: their blithe cunning is forever keeping me on my toes.


Dangerous Liaisons is a good book about bad people. What makes it a work of genius is the fact that evil (the Marquise, Valmont) is portrayed with such dazzling beauty, charm and a great wisdom of its own. The gentle and true-hearted Mme de Tourvel cannot impress us in the same way. She falls victim to Merteuil and the Vicomte’s vicious designs, and Laclos the author sacrifices her as well in service of the plot. A lamb and a dupe, naïve in the best possible way, the Présidente is at the subtle center of an immensely sophisticated work.

A certain brash sort of Beauty is abroad in the world, splashed across magazine covers, movie screens and television sets. She is immediately pleasing, sinking her hooks into me with simple but catchy songs, or the attraction of a witty person at the table and the lure of more pleasures to follow.

Did Beauty thus leave her sisters behind to whore with the devil? Do they still sit in their tower, with no beauty of their own, except one as stern and plain as they are? Or do they think of their sister, but for all their work, cannot discover how to dazzle as she does? Or has Beauty never absconded, but rather, because she likes nothing better than to delight, will sometimes steal out of the castle by night, to grace a good woman, or a plain-spoken man?


The Soul of Empathy

Wallace Stevens makes the claim that poetry restores to us a "supreme fiction," giving us back the meaning we lost when we ceased to believe in God or practice religion. Empathy, to me, is not an activity which parallels the belief Stevens calls us to have in necessary fictions; it's not about convincing myself that I am something or someone else, but rather about being willing and able to imagine myself, temporarily, inside the other's experience (which is tricky for me with rocks, but I'm willing to try). In the moment of empathy, that imagination does precisely take the form of "I am that." But believing that I am that arthropod or that person or that machine, permanently, short-circuits empathy -- in order to function, empathy needs me to feel, as me, for another. And if empathy is going to have any ethical function, saying "I am my brother" is not going to help me navigate between my brother's needs and mine.

Though John Donne would seem agree with Ezra: "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." Donne's argument is that we are all part of the same thing, that anyone's death diminishes us because we are inseparably linked. (And he begins his meditation with an empathic experiment: hearing the bells tolling, he imagines a man whose friends have caused the bells to be tolled for him because they know he's too ill to recover, while he himself does not yet know it -- and Donne takes this further, saying, Who knows? I may be that man who is sicker than he knows; the bell may be tolling for me, though I think I am well.)

Progressing further into a dissolution of my own point, here is a poem by Mary Oliver -- who, like Ezra, goes all the way to rocks:

Some Questions You Might Ask

Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of an owl?
Who has it, and who doesn't?
I keep looking around me.
The face of the moose is as sad
as the face of Jesus.
The swan opens her white wings slowly.
In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.
One question leads to another.
Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg?
Like the eye of a hummingbird?
Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?
Why should I have it, and not the anteater
who loves her children?
Why should I have it, and not the camel?
Come to think of it, what about maple trees?
What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?

Empathy: A Thought Experiment

I love the idea of there being "no inherent limits to the gulfs of otherness that empathy can bridge" (see previous post). The following is not intended as a reductio ad absurdum of the claim, but as an ethical nudge, a challenge, or a dare – unless it is simply a poem. It relies the following premise: that to empathize is to be able to say, "I am that..." and to mean it.

  • I am that child.
  • I am that man.
  • I am that woman.
  • I am that mother.
  • I am my neighbor.
  • I am my enemy.
  • I am that orangutan.
  • I am that dolphin.
  • I am that dog, that cat.
  • I am that lizard. I am that bird.
  • I am that mollusk.
  • I am that arthropod.
  • I am that sponge.
  • I am that fungus.
  • I am that bacterium.
  • I am that cell.
  • I am that rock.
  • I am that cloud.
  • I am that equation.
  • I am that plate.
  • I am that key.
  • I am that tool.
  • I am that program.
  • I am that machine.
  • I am that model.
  • I am that robot.
  • I am that replica of myself.


More on Empathy

Ezra, in “An Empathy Problem” you ask whether we can reconcile empathy’s expansiveness with making decisions about our own survival. It seems to me that this is the central conflict in which anyone finds himself who attempts to behave morally – that identifying with someone else’s needs means setting one’s own needs aside, at least temporarily. The process of empathy in itself is not itself a process of choice; it is part of the ground for making choices. And when one’s own needs conflict with the needs of others, empathy can put one, at the extreme, in the position of having to choose between one’s own survival and the survival of another. But it seems to me that the ability not to see my own survival as a thing to be pursued at all costs is part of what it means to be human. That doesn’t mean that in every situation, others’ needs should automatically supersede mine, but the ability to feel strongly the tension between my needs and theirs is essential to any functioning communal life, and also essential if there is ever to be peace between different communities.

You also assert that “empathy cannot make a bridge to what is alien or radically different.” While it is certainly easier to identify with what is like me, and while likeness often provides an entry point into empathy toward what is other, I see empathy as being, at its core, precisely about bridging to what is alien. At its most basic, empathy is a feeling-with, a feeling-for, someone who is not me. Even those who are in my community are alien at this basic level; it’s a narrower chasm, but just as deep as the one between me and an even more radical other. And if empathy is not wholly learned, it can nonetheless be expanded or shrunk by the choices we make in living. It is a kind of emotional imagination, an ability to say “what if?” While we fail constantly at building empathic bridges, I see no inherent limits to the gulfs of otherness that empathy can bridge, if we are willing to do the imaginative work required.


Story and message

A long time has passed since this post in response to some of my statements about my bookshelves. And since then, my opinion has changed.

When I wrote the original post, I still thought of myself primarily as a critic - someone who studies books. And the study of books, at least the academic study, is based on secondary characteristics. We ignore the story in order to study what it means and what's going on behind it. So philosophy seems more important than fantasy: fantasy books are based on story, and if there's a message or theme, it's secondary.

And now I will say: this is as it should be in fiction. The story should be most important, and anything else that we see in the book comes through the story.

So what's changed? In the past three months I've started writing stories of my own. I've stopped thinking of myself as a critic and started thinking of myself as a writer. I've tried to learn what makes a good story. And good stories are not driven by theme. Good stories are driven by real, confusing, inconsistent characters, who don't always make the right choices and don't always understand the choices they make. It's not a writer's job to make their characters' choices clear so that they express the 'right' philosophy. Characters take on a life of their own, and express a philosophy as they learn it through their experiences - sort of like we all do, every day.

So: mea culpa, and long live the story!


An Empathy Problem

I just read Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep for either the second or third time, and I'm beginning to articulate for myself the challenges it raises to the value of empathy. Empathy makes it possible for humans in the novel to remain hopeful and productive on a post-apocalyptic and decaying Earth. Humans distribute their pain (which lessens it) and also share in each other's happiness (which enlivens everyone). As far as this goes, empathy appears as an unqualified good, a non-zero sum game; and in the novel this empathy consists literally of people sharing their emotions through an "empathy box" – a machine that allows collective participation in a religious allegory.

Furthermore empathy appears to be valuable not just for humans, but for animals, too. In the post-apocalyptic environment, with hundreds or thousands of common species very recently extinct, every animal left alive is the subject of human veneration, and empathy. P.K. Dick doesn't literalize this empathy, but he underscores its importance by making its presence a basic method for distinguishing authentic humans from the advanced artificial humanoid servants – androids – who occasionally kill their masters and try to pass as human. Bounty hunters, like the novel's hero, Rick Deckard, ask subjects to imagine and respond to scenarios that involve obvious or implicit harm to animals, and androids always fail to react with the appropriate horror. But the tests are obviously culturally coded: you and I would probably fail, too.

From here things become more complicated, because Deckard, whose job is to "retire" escaped androids, empathizes with some of them; and Deckard detests another bounty hunter, named Resch, for his lack of empathy towards the androids. In fact Deckard becomes convinced by Resch's callousness that Resch is himself an android, and when Resch tests out as human, Deckard is dismayed.

Parts of this novel simply don't cohere, as is common in P.K. Dick's oeuvre. But a generous reading of the novel has it asking this question: Can one reconcile the glorious expansiveness of empathy with making the distinctions upon which one's survival may rest? It seems to me that without a machine that permits a heterogeneous population literally to pool its emotions, people in fact empathize with other, recognizably similar beings. Empathy cannot make a bridge to what is alien or radically different, and in fact in can exacerbate feelings of alienation. When empathy is widespread, anyone left out of the loop becomes suspect, potentially the object of hatred or intense fear. If empathy is what makes "us" human, dare we embrace that humanity? Do we even have the alternative – to know the android, too?