After 9/11, many authors rethought their positions in the world. Jane Smiley returned to books to make sense of her shattered world, and she produced 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. In it, she reaffirmed her belief in the essential goodness of humanity through a review of the best novels she had ever read.
I was no exception. But unlike Jane Smiley, who turned to the novel to refresh her shaken sense of humanity that had she had once found in quiet hours of reading, I had a far darker experience.
Ms. Smiley’s sense of literature comes from her having been raised in an environment of Modernism. Her title to her book which she wrote after 9/11 comes from Wallace Stevens’ ‘13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,’ a poem which represented the modern way of looking at the universe after the ‘traditional’ way of reading a poem had failed. Williams, like Joyce and Eliot, had fragmented the universe into bits and had looked at it from its various perspectives in order to recreate a whole perspective on the world.
The Modernist position was to displace our attachment from the one sanctioned position in the world in order to gain a greater position whereby one could look at the world from various positions. Such a multi-perspetival approach, for Williams, Eliot, and Joyce, was held in place by the solid individual at the heart of perception. Life presented itself to the viewer as a series of disconnected events. The individual poet could reassemble what life put in front of him by seeing underneath a series of disconnected events to the deeper archetypal meaning that those events held for the careful observer.
It was to the failure of this approach that my first work of fiction was supposed to address itself. It is why I addressed myself to Steven Pressfield and Bernard Malamud in my introduction. I have nothing against their approach to art. As I say in the introduction, I admire the work of both authors very much. It’s just that it doesn’t accord with all the evidence that I had experienced in my life. And in accordance with the metaphysical approach to art, I wanted to fill in their experience with my own experience.
I had already had the experience of deconstruction to guide me away from my firm commitment to thoroughly modern approach to literature, as its skepticism cut deeply into my belief that anyone ever really had true insight into events. But unlike the postmodern opening up of literature to multiple perspectives, I was skeptical that even with a 100 perspectives we could never obtain ‘the truth.’ The problem I always had with deconstruction was that it didn’t propose final answers (indeed, it couldn’t advocate anything but the continuation of and endless chain of words that never settled on a final answer) but it set itself up as the touchstone of belonging and not belonging. I had slipped through the cracks as someone could not get heard on either side of the (seemingly) firm divides into which art had been divided. My only choice was to rethink the firm divide itself.
And this is what I was hoping to accomplish in my book of Poker Tales. In the course of my rethinking literature itself, so I decided to rewrite literature in my image. I started out with The Canterbury Tales. I will travel to Shakespeare and Dante (and others) after that.
Lessons in Reading
‘Lessons in Reading’ may be interpreted as one of the two most anti-academic bits of my work (the other is the tale of the ‘Four Parisians’). I maintain that my perspective is not anti-academic, but appears so to those who commit to one particular (and extremely popular) theory of reading. This is the widespread belief that people who know more are better off than people who know less. I challenge this in my chapter on the ‘Lessons of Reading’ a poker hand.
Poker is a game of incomplete information that nevertheless yields a definite winner in every hand. The indefinite nature of the reader’s knowledge of the hands that have been dealt, in my opinion, reflects our lives as readers of our experience. The more you know, the better off you will be. But this is only true if you have correctly read the world correctly.
Now many academics (not all) take the position that nature at it is in itself is unavailable and that the human mind always interferes with our perception if the world the way it is. This means that there is no one correct interpretation of events. This has fiven rise to various philosophical systems to deal with that fact (systems like phenomenology and hermeneutics). I have no problem with that. There are many approaches to the truth. But when they attempt to level various interpretations of the science they encounter, I have a problem with that. Some opinions are better than others.
Here’s why. I take the example of two cultural responses to the scientific phenomenon of an earthquake. The first response to the phenomenon is made by an expert medicine man who believes that the ground is rumbling on account of the River God George. And he should know, as he has been studying the workings of the god for 75 years. He knows how to pick out the best virgins to fling into the volcano when things start to shake.
His response is objectively worse off than my 13 year old when it comes to knowing what it actually going under the earth. This is because my 13 year old has a better sense of the science that underlies appearances. Appearances are fleeting. The science of the world is real, but, like the orbit of Pluto, may be undiscovered for most of human history. But when they are discovered, it makes sense to grasp onto the best explanation, rather than the traditional explanation, no matter how much time your village elders have put into their errant education.
This enforces on human beings a course of scanning the skies to be on the lookout for the next big unforeseen event.
Being right is more important in a Pareto universe, and if you want to succeed in a competitive universe, you need to reflect the universe as accurately as possible. In this environment, academics have retreated from competition to a place where they can feel as though they are pursuing themselves alone and not base money.
That is their right. They want to allow everyone in the universe to have equal dignity, and dignity is not the source of monetary value. This is why (I suppose; I can’t really read the academic mindset on these issues) why one of my Medtextl colleagues was arguing with me about the equal value of learning Chinese (with its 40,000 characters) and English (with its 26 characters) after I had proposed that Chinese had no future without reform of its alphabet to compete with the much simpler alphabetic structure of English. Sure, I grant that both languages produce readers, but one produces readers at a faster rate than the other and the efficiency of one language over the other means that over time one language will produce more readers in a universe in which men have free will.
There are other forms of value in the universe than money values, and I for one think that those who pursue only money are fools. But not competing in a competitive universe doesn’t allow you to back away behind ivory curtains and announce that you’re better than those who do compete. In my view, those who back away forfeit their right to participate in competition. Such absolute walls as academics build in their quest to rise to the level of the absolute are only as good as the current knowledge allows. As soon as new knowledge appears, the boundaries of metaphysics change.
This causes some to be on the forefront of change (in the avant-garde) and some to be left behind. But the universe is evolving, and no one knows for sure where it’s going. The best we can hope for is to bet, and as my parents told me, betting means risk. Standing back and looking at the whole of history and declaring one’s confidence in one’s predictions based on past behavior will continue into the future.
After 9/11, I thought that academia needed reform from its principles of granting equality to all. It was a good idea in its day, but others had come along with better ideas. Neither of these competing ideas captures the essence of ‘the truth.’ They are imaginative reconstructions of the truth based on the available evidence. And one idea has won out over the other. But new ideas which fit the evidence even better will come along. They always do. At that point, the confidence of our leaders, which look so solid and secure, will look feeble.
Academics and those trained in academia want to allow maximum freedom to participate in the modern world, and so they have weakened the badges of belonging to any position (except their own) and found salvation in the dream of a community of men pursuing communal ideals. Those who actually believe in things like America, personal religion, or provincial pursuits like country music are to be shunned. It was this that I thought needed reforming when I sat down to write my book.
Once again, I want to make myself clear here. It is not that I don’t like academic readings. I do. My objection to their reading is that they are overconfident in their ends. This comes from my experience in graduate school, where (as I say here) my fellow teachers were “culling their students,” looking for those who agreed with their initial positions. That position has some serious weaknesses, the chief of which is that I don’t think it is enough to weaken the bonds of community in order to pursue a new, revolutionary community based on principles of weaker participation in institutions and more on ‘the truth’ which has been hidden by ‘them.’
And, yes, I recognize that too much investment in institutions is a bad thing. But this is true of all institutions, not just the ones we don’t like. Academics are struggling to save their institutions against a tide of troubles. They have won the battle with conservatives over tenure, but tenure keeps slipping away. They have won the battle with the religious right, and yet the number of people who believe in religion has increased. In my opinion (but who am I?) it is time to take a good look at the institution of academia itself, not to destroy it, but to shore up its seemingly perpetual weaknesses.
My Attack on Heroic Reading
This has led me by commodious vicus of recirculation back to the world of literature, where certain authors (and great authors) have approached literature from a ‘heroic’ perspective. One of the foremost authors of this approach to literature is, of course, Joseph Campbell. It is an approach taken to literature by people like Steven Pressfield and Bernard Malamud. But is also, as I’ve said on this blog before, a system that displaces one from one’s individual life to a starlight perspective, far away from the world of our actual lives into a fictional world where our dreams come true.
And this has some (I would say serious) consequences for our lives as readers. If we believe (as I was taught when I went away to school) that fiction captures ‘the truth,’ then the first and necessary move in our lives as ‘true’ readers is to abandon our individual lives for a more stable reading from the perspective of the stars, because those men and women who remain attached to their individual lives are supposed to be attached to their individual desires. It is only by flying from individual desires that humanity could be saved. This is why Hermione flees herself for the comforts of the other Birkin in Lawrence’s Women in Love. He knows what she only hopes to know.
And yet she is caught up in a problem of her own making when she does this, because the other Birkin doesn’t know. And in giving herself up for knowledge that is not forthcoming, she has given up herself.
The same thing is true of the starlight perspective. There were no ‘real’ gods in that space. There is no ‘truth.’ All is illusion there.
This was something that, although I was an uneducated fool when I first went to college, made me retreat from my teacher’s invitation to follow them into the stars as the way to the ‘truth.’ It was why I had such a hard time digesting the literature of Hermione in Lawrence’s Women in Love. It was why dropped out of college. I wanted to fulfill the promise that my teachers had made but could not fulfill.
Over time, I have come to appreciate just how much fiction is implied in my teachers’ quest for ‘the truth.’ I will use the most famous work of modern fiction, George Lucas’ Joseph Campbell-inspired Star Wars to make my point.
Star Wars is a wonderful set of films (I mean this to be taken without irony), but at their center is a vaguely-defines ‘force’ that hold everything together. This is a perfectly acceptable device in fiction, one that make terror films possible. Characters are divided between those who believe and those who don’t in whatever ridiculous creature the creator of the fictional mythology believe in. Those who don’t react to such improbable devices are killed, while those who do react are rewarded by being allowed to live.
This device is one of the main reasons I have never liked horror as a genre. I don’t believe in monsters (I’m too rational for that or ghosts), but I still get scared by hockey-mask-covered-faced men stalking and killing young adolescent teens right after (sometimes during) their first sexual experience. This is because I don’t believe the whole framework of the surrounding myth, but I am still captured in my seat while the slaughter of teens continues. It is this jarring disconnect between the creator’s intentions and my experience that breaks the suspension of disbelief that is necessary for any human being to react to a work of fiction as its author intends us to. I react to heroic works of fiction with a sense of philosophical calm, but not with the emotive reaction being called out of my by the author. That reaction annoys me in the horror genre.
Now I am married to a woman who loves horror flicks, and so I know enough to respect them and the hold they have on the human imagination. I myself just can’t get used to the suspension of disbelief required of me in the grand guignol.
This was true of my experience with Lucas’ Star Wars. The problem with me in the 70s and 80s was that I was looking for ‘truth’ beneath the fiction. But when I had dropped out of college and left my parent’s house, I got a job at that same Eden’s Theater where I used to sneak in in high school. It was the summer when Lucas had produced his third film in the Star Wars trilogy. It has a long run, and I saw it over 100 times during the course of the summer.
One of my friends believed that he had access to the ‘force’ and could use his powers to affect physical events. I was skeptical. Okay, I was more than skeptical; I openly mocked him. A lot. We remained friends due to the fact that he thought I was an idiot who didn’t believe in the power of ‘the force,’ and so he took me under his wing and tried to feed me his valuable information that I could have access to if I would only drop my reluctance to believe in ‘the force.’ I, for my part, could never get over his actual belief in something so foolish as ‘the force.’ As an act of fiction, it was fine. As an act of reality it was really stupid.
My friend, though he was my friend, was living in a dream. I had no desire to follow him into his madness. This has been a consistent pattern in my life. I attempt to ground my works of fiction in fact, but people come to me believing things that are so obviously fictional constructs that I turn away. I want ‘real’ facts,’ not delusions. This offends many people, but they don’t listen to my objections. They simply assume that I have not heard the latest evangel, and all they have to do is to guide me into their perfect worldview. At no point is there any sense that they could be wrong.
I continue to think that they are wrong. And here’s a hint the Mary’s and Jeanne’s who want to convince me of their positions. If you want to convince me that you’re right, engage with me. Don’t turn away from me towards students who agree with your initial conclusions. It might work on the weakest students, but it doesn’t work on me.
So when I wanted to write a work of fiction on my own, I decided that I wanted to write something better than Lucas’ delusional masterpiece (which I acknowledge as a fictional masterpiece, but not as representing anything like the ‘truth’ that we encounter when we encounter the world as it is). I wanted my fictional world to be a free-floating story which doesn’t ground itself in any sort of delusion that could be taken for a fact. Rather than looking at fiction as a guide to fact, I gave up and decided to highlight the illusion of fiction in fiction. The poker table was the perfect place to set such a story.
In my story I have the Kid, who has some cards in his hand. Suddenly, one of his heroes, Pally Cornhouse, shows up in the room. The Kid is gaga over the appearance of one of his heroes, and he gushes over him. This appeals to the hero, and he offers to stay and watch the Kid play a hand.
After the hand is over, he guesses the exact hand he had. This causes the Kid to gush even more over the brilliance of Pally Cornhouse, which in turn turns into an invitation to come up to play in the big game upstairs.
The Kid is about to go, when the Old-Timer warns him about his proposed course of action. Poker players want to take your money, he says, so you’d better be careful before you go to play with the master. The Old-Timer then replays the hand from the perspective of his seat at the poker table. It is different being at the table than it is being an observer. He, the Old-Timer, had reason to be more cautious than Pally Cornhouse was, because he was actually playing for keeps. This involves him in loosing his range of hands to include more hands than Pally Cornhouse had allowed.
As such, I think that holding your judgment until you have gathered as much evidence as possible is better than taking a chance and betting that your guess is correct. If you’re right, you could be a genius, but betting on genius is not always the best policy. At the poker table, you’re better off being cautious about your reading and right than laying your chips on the table on a hunch and being wrong.
This bring the Kid to reconsider his initial plan, and he decides to say with the Old-Timer.
Questions My Readers Should Want Answers To Before Proceeding
There are several questions that the course of action that the Kid takes here, all of which a careful poker would want answers to before acting.
Is the Old-Timer right when he dispels the ‘magic’ of Pally, telling him that he’s seen him guess wrong often enough? Probably . Was he right not to go with Pally? Probably. Can he know for sure? Probably not. Has he assessed the Old-Timer’s poker skill correctly? That is the question that remains after he has made his decision.
Even those answers we can have answers to are only tentative. Unfortunately, the final answers to these questions are not available in the abstract space of the observer of action. The course of action must be lived through to know its results for sure. Until then, all is merely speculation. But between the play and the end (when everyone can count up their winnings or lament their losses), play continues. Ends are not the only things that are important in the game of poker. In fact, the science of the poker hand is far more important in evaluating a poker hand.
This leads the Old-Timer to portray a distinction between observers and players. The players within that game have real money at stake, while the observers don’t have as much to lose by guessing after the fact.
This is a distinction between the critic and the reader. Critics are necessary, but they don’t play. Instead, they stand by and observe and direct the behavior of others. This gives them power and control over others, but theirs is a completely separate experience from the cello player who must confront the natural limits of his own talents at some point. The experience of following one’s bliss comes from correctly assessing one’s natural talents and not by thinking that all talents are accessible to us on account of our mere existence. I think we have all seen enough of America Idol to know how that usually works out and just how rare is the true talent that can navigate the treacherous course of following one’s dreams.