The agreeable eye

an eudæmonistarchives

December 2023

ordinary crying

2 December 2023, around 14.55.

A frost covered chain in front of a frost covered meadow

This chain might want to be a metaphor, but I am too lazy to link any ideas to the image.

The difference of natural talents in different men, is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. When they came in to the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were, perhaps, very much alike, and neither their parents nor play-fellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance.

—Adam Smith (An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, p. 18)

It is hard to know what to make of the grief memoir (or, indeed, its relative, the death memoir).1 Whatever it does, it does not make sense of grief, because grief contains very little sense – it doesn’t contain anything much except absence, a phantom pain, the fullness of absence.2 Grief (or mourning) is not good or bad, not a matter of morality at all – it simply is, in the same way clouds are, or the wind, or the rain, or the sun beating down and blinding one; in the same way as a bruise, or the dry socket of an extracted tooth. One can describe these things, certainly, quantify them, trace their outlines, break them down into their component parts – but that does not (cannot) necessarily make sense of them.3

These memoirs, then, end up being about something else, something beyond grief, something that can anchor it in the world as it is. Sometimes they explore the minutiae of caregiving, as in Lynne Tillman’s Mothercare (link is to an excerpt). Sometimes they explore the boundaries of the relationship that has been lost, as in Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H-Mart (link is to an excerpt), or Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, or Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary (link is to a review/contextualization). Sometimes they seem written primarily to inform the author’s pastoral care (e.g., Steve Leder’s The Beauty of What Remains or Liz Tichenor’s The Night Lake). Sometimes they grapple, successfully or not, with much larger societal issues, such as femicide, as in Cristina Rivera Garza’s Liliana’s Invincible Summer; or systemic racism, as in Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes (link is to an excerpt). They all have their purposes and their virtues (and vices). They can be hard to read – not simply because grief is as uncomfortable to witness as it is experience, but because they are so individual, so private. One wants to avert one’s gaze. But they have been published, appear before the public draped in their paper gown, and one wants to make sense of that, too.

  1. Which is of course even more closely related to the illness memoir, which is tied to the birthing/pregnancy memoir, and there you are, memoirs all the way from grave to cradle, crying the whole time. []
  2. Though I suppose as a feeling, it is ‘sensible’, but that is hardly any help. []
  3. Or perhaps I mean cope with them – a distinction perhaps with little difference. []

the same river

4 December 2023, around 16.04.

Some mist, some trees. Winter

When we write a letter, we experience a strange space. To the friends and spouses we use the most informal language with, we suddenly become very formal. I wonder if the poem’s speaker also lives in such a space, a space that is of our daily lives and yet is separate or different from it at the same time. A space where age, gender, or the binary of life and death have either untouched or retreated from—a space only the speaker can enter.

—Lee Seong-bok (Indeterminate Inflorescence, trans. Anton Hur, p. 103f.)


21 December 2023, around 6.17.

We are constantly telling stories—about how we are, about every person we see, hear, hear about—and when we don’t know something, we fill in the gaps with parts of stories we’ve told or heard before. Stories are always only representations. […] to tell a story based on a character-driven plot or a moment of epiphany or a three-act structure is to subject story to cultural expectations. To wield craft morally is not to pretend that those expectations can be met innocently or artfully without ideology, but to engage with the problems ideology presents and creates.

—Matthew Salesses (Craft in the Real World, p. 29)

It is still before six in the morning when I return from my run1 and take the dog out. It is just above freezing, and a fog is starting to inch up the west–east streets from the river, unheimlich as something from M.R. James. The shadows – my own and the dog’s – seem larger and more substantial than flesh as we pause at the neighbor’s so she can make note of a fern or examine a wrapper that has escaped the bins. Being with the dog is a matter of punctuation: there is an emphasis on pauses rather than movement. She does not come with me on my run – or, indeed, on any excursion dependent on going from a specific point A to a different (also specific) point B.

* * *

For the last little while I have been thinking about Galen Strawson’s Things That Bother Me, which, like an unpleasant but catchy tune, began to bother me as well. There is much to bother one in Strawson’s book, but his discussion of two things stuck with me the most:2 the ‘sense of self’ and its cousin the ‘narrative self’. Strawson takes a Marxist view of the self – he’s against it. I don’t quite understand why he finds the ‘self’ as concept so frustrating. Perhaps for reasons similar to my frustration with his frustration: it is annoying not to see one’s experience of the world reflected in others, particular if one could interpret one’s own experience as being denied by those reflections.3

This repudiation of the self qua persistent being is historically situated, although he doesn’t go in for too much detail on the matter. While it might be fun to stand in a circle and take turns kicking Descartes (or Aristotle, or Hegel, or even G.M. Hopkins (?!)) in the shins, what I think Strawson is ultimately trying to convey is that a continuous narrative understanding of one’s life is not essential in the sense that it does not always occur. That is not a point with which I would argue, because it seems inarguable;4 why would one’s life be a narrative that, to be complete, would need to include all instances of brushing one’s teeth or taking out the trash? One foreshortens, abridges, elides, compresses, confuses, mistakes – as does, for example (Strawson’s example), Montaigne.5 The personal narrative, be it episodic or continuous – the result of choices both conscious and not – is not (in general) less true6 than some imagined ‘objective’ narrative (if one assumes, for example, a dispassionate clipboard noting down the minutes of one’s life).7

I also suspect that those who are drawn to write on the subject of narrativity tend to have strongly endurant and narrative outlooks or personalities, and generalize from their own case with that special, fabulously misplaced confidence that people feel when, considering elements of their own experience that are existentially fundamental for them, they take it that they must also be fundamental for everyone else.

—Galen Strawson (‘A Fallacy for Our Age’, in Things That Bother Me, p. 59)

But to say that one does not tell stories of one’s life – well, isn’t that another story? Some of the stories that Strawson, in his essays, tells of himself: ‘I do not live in narrative’, ‘my sense of self is transient’, ‘the past me and the present me are not the same’, ‘I am a philosopher’. These are not perhaps very interesting stories. They are not long or involved – and I suppose in this sense they are ‘transient’. No one ever said, though, that a life-story needs to (or should) be interesting.8 Nor is there any need for the life-narrative to be coherent or to follow a conventional plot arc; one would be disappointed, perhaps, if it did (ah, well, I’ve reached the one crisis of my life, it’s all downhill from here).9

Perhaps what bothers me most is that his essays make so obvious the distance between being clever and being wise – a distinction I generally prefer to overlook.10

* * *

Of course wisdom may be overrated. The dog is certainly wiser than I – her entirely reasonable fear of trash trucks and busy streets is certain evidence of that – but I would not necessarily follow her suggestions for the good life.

On the second to last corner of the block, she stops and stares into the darkness across the street at the house where a blue merle corgi is sometimes left out on the porch to bark at the neighborhood: she likes to grumble back when it does. These encounters have the habitual savor of old men quarreling at a corner café in another sort of town or another sort of time. She anticipates the encounter and, I think, enjoys the narrow span of expectancy. It is comforting to have the opportunity to grumble about something, and one looks forward to it, enjoys the anticipation, even if it is not satisfied.

If the ghosts in the stories are the ghosts in our dreams are the ghosts in our closets, we cannot put them behind a placard, inside a glass box. The farther we get from the origin, the looser the narrative becomes. But perhaps what it loses in precision, it gains in expansiveness. The story is a different story. The story is the same story.

—Jami Nakamura Lin (The Night Parade, p. 286)

  1. If one may dignify by the name of ‘running’ what is perhaps closer to a lazy shuffle. []
  2. The craw being quite sensitive. []
  3. Although this is, of course, one’s interpretation, not the positive statement of the other. Not to get too Levinasian in the footnotes. []
  4. Not least because, to skirt uncomfortably close to what Strawson calls ‘the Great Silliness’ of the denial of consciousness, it is scarcely observable. []
  5. Or, indeed, any memoirist. Muriel Spark’s autobiography, for example, leaves out rather more of her consciousness than it includes, although it does have rather a lot to say about butter. []
  6. There are always exceptions, of course. []
  7. It is possible Strawson is merely arguing against the imagined clipboard – and who wouldn’t? []
  8. Interesting times and all that. []
  9. Perhaps some people do live that way, but it seems disappointing. There are other narrative types to explore. []
  10. It’s also possible that Strawson merely wishes to disassociate his present ‘self’ from the actions of his younger self; judging from the sample behavior presented in the final essay, he was a bit of a twerp, so the impulse is understandable. I myself would prefer not to be associated with some of my youthful twerpitude, but I would not say that I am not now that person (not least because I would not be the ‘self’ that I am now without having been at one time the self I was then, etc., etc.). I don’t actually think I disagree with Strawson as such, which is perhaps another thing that frustrates me. []

Adversaria (9)

31 December 2023, around 4.28.

An awareness of over-interpretation needn’t imply a kind of unattainable (and undesirable) objectivity, but rather a thoughtfully subjective approach, which does not involve second-guessing the artist. When content and materials are interpreted and combined in a balanced way, the result can be greater than the sum of its parts. A transformation of the given matter through a kind of elegant alchemy, rather than cut-and-paste pastiche.

—James Goggin (‘The Matta-Clark Complex’, in The Form of the Book Book, p. 31)

‘All theories of behavior that reduce enjoyment to the satisfaction of needs, whether they are held by economists or behaviorists, come to the same conclusion: the needs can never be fully satisfied.’ —Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, p. x)

‘Something deep and dark and unrecognisable. Something no manuscript should concern itself with, for no book is able to bear the weight of what it cannot say’ —Christina Tudor-Sideri (If I Had Not Seen Their Sleeping Faces, p. 31)

‘You can’t criticize something for not doing things it isn’t meant to do’ —Galen Strawson (‘Real Naturalism’, Things That Bother Me, p. 160)

‘The essays written by experts which needed some form of recasting were mainly passed on to me. I learned how to copy-edit tactfully. I recall that I took out a great many adjectives’ —Muriel Spark (Curriculum Vitae, p. 161)

‘…you end up with not with a book written by the you who existed on any particular day but, rather, one collaborated upon by the many selves who existed over the likely hundreds of days you were writing’ —Matt Bell (Refuse to Be Done, p. 98)

‘A man commonly saunters a little in turning his hand from one sort of employment to another. When he first begins the new work, he is seldom very keen and hearty; his mind, as they say, does not go to it, and for some time he rather trifles than applies to good purpose’ —Adam Smith (…Wealth of Nations, p. 10f.)

‘Achievement of a goal is important to mark one’s performance but is not in itself satisfying. What keeps one going is the experience of acting outside the parameters of worry and boredom: the experience of flow’ —Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, p. 38)

‘If you want a brutal test of how well your prose is holding up, I promise that a tone-deaf robot with pronunciation issues will be happy to give you the least generous read possible’ —Matt Bell (Refuse to Be Done, p. 100)

‘…so much remains on the outside that one could gather it, for days and days, and have another all, and then another, that this is how life is lived, through the little that piles up, through the everything that comes and comes and sometimes leaves, through things and actions and gestures so small that one barely sees them…’ —Christina Tudor-Sideri (If I Had Not Seen Their Sleeping Faces, p. 81)

The addictive properties of flow and its potential for offering a metasocial critique are two sides of the same coin. We have seen in connection with rock climbing that a rich flow activity provides a perspective from which people evaluate everyday life and from which they gain impetus for social change. But the simple beauty of the deep-flow world is so seductive from some that they relinquish their foothold in everyday life and retreat into the self-contained universe of the activity. When this happens, the constructive potential of flow is lost. The flow activity is still enjoyable, but it becomes a rigid, isolating system instead of a growing, integrative one. The fragile dialectical tension between the flow sphere and the rest of experience is indispensable if the former is to enrich the latter.

These dangers, however, only confirm the power of intrinsic motivation. Just as one can become power crazy or money hungry, it is possible to be hooked on flow in its many manifestations. Like all forms of motivation, flow is a dangerous resource. But given its advantages over extrinsic rewards, it is a resource which one cannot afford to neglect.

—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, p. x)

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