This is mini-essay I wrote to accompany a photograph in a lovely book of Canadian author pics by the Israeli photographer Danielle Schaub. (The photograph in the book is dg reading under an awning at the Eden Mills Literary Festival and should not be confused with the photo on the right, which is a picture of rat.) The full reference is Reading Writers Reading, Danielle Schaub, editor and photographer, University of Alberta Press, Edmonton, 2006. The essay was subsequently reprinted in Geist 62, Fall 2006. I post it because there is a rat theme developing (see the post below as well as the villanelle contest where one of the entrants has linked in a photo of a rat, some kind of performance art, one assumes). There is also a reading to your children thread following the Steven Heighton poem posted an issue or so ago. The convergence of vectors forces me to take desperate measures.
My mother read to me, and now I read to my boys. They are twelve and nine. Their mother and I are divorced; they spend half the time with me. We live in shabby upstate New York suburbia with a variable menagerie of pets: dogs, squirrels, rats, cats and, once, an opossum. (Some things an innocent parent should never be exposed to: Walking into the boys’ bedroom one evening, I was greeted by Jonah shouting, “Look, Dad! Bungee rat.” Poor rat.) Last year we read David Copperfield, mostly in the evenings before the boys went to sleep. We read in my bed because we can all get in it together (along with the dogs and the cat). The boys still shout, “Donkeys! Janet! Donkeys!” when they’re in a good mood and want to remember the pleasure we shared over David’s aunt and her front yard obsession about donkeys. Or Jacob will look at me slyly and say, “Barkis is willin'” or “I’m a lone lorn creature.” And I still remember the aching sadness of David’s realization that he had married a child wife and not an adult companion of his heart. One day, the last of the rats, a beige female the boys had christened Rex (don’t ask why) collapsed in her cage, eyes shut, her breath coming in quick, shallow pants. We’d been through this before. We knew she was dying. I made a nest for her in a shoe box and kept her beside me in my study all day. And when the boys came home from school, they took up the death watch. Rex never regained consciousness but did manage to breathe into the evening. As usual we climbed into bed with tea and David Copperfield and began to read. We had reached the tempest chapter, that terrific moment of convergence when David watches Ham throw himself into the surf to swim to a sinking ship and simultaneously realizes that the nefarious Steerforth, who has seduced Ham’s little Emily and ruined her, is a passenger on the ship. Ham swims; Steerforth dashes about on deck; the storm rages. Suddenly the ship, Ham and Steerforth disappear beneath a huge wave. Simultaneously, a desperate little sigh burst from Rex’s shoe box deathbed. The boys and I jumped up to look. Rex kicked her back legs once, trembled and died in what struck us immediately as a Dickensian coincidence of life and literature. (As I write this, Jonah reminds me of the other great Dickens moment in our house: when the boys discovered the character in Oliver Twist known as Master Bates.)
Shy in high school, perfect only in awareness of my imperfections, I was also too good a daughter, thus too unsure of myself, to put up much of a fight when my parents decided I should go to a girls school when college time rolled around. Their reasons, echoes maybe of the way things once were done, these echoes themselves echoes of something else probably not worth listening to, must have been related to the notion that a young woman needed a place of seclusion where she could develop patience, forbearance, and a sense of propriety before she entered the world then left it to get married, qualities that would help her wear the harness with grace.
They never said as much, of course, because silence was a Southern quality, too, a way of preserving the purity, the ineffability of whatever it was that mattered in life after this whatever had been shaken by the Sixties, that decade of noise, or so they must have felt, my father, who upheld morality by never doing anything wrong, who propped the sagging social structure by becoming a pillar of business, church, and family; my mother, who aggressively pursued her passive role as a mother and tacit keeper of virtue and all things beautiful, who did her part in the decline by wielding clubs—the bridge club, the garden club, and a couple of clubs at First Pres.
I don’t know, however, what claim they had on the South, as their families didn’t go back that far or spread that wide when they came. We were middle class suburbanites like everyone else, and Dad had to scrape a bit to send my sister and me to a private school. Still, this was what I inherited and had to contend with, not an order, but its rigid outline, not a belonging, but its reflection, a place in a posited universe that I only knew through the sign language of wistful sighs and stiff gestures, whose spheres resonated with the music of things that went unsaid.
But what can be said against what isn’t said? Protest would only bounce off the sheen of their beliefs. And even the usual complaints wouldn’t stick well, not by the time I was old enough to make them. They had already acquiesced to civil rights and put race behind them—amazing how easy it was for them to let it go. As for the feminine song and dance, it would have been hard to tell Mom she was oppressed in a home where she had the upper hand, harder yet when she left it to sell real estate, and impossible, years later, when she left Dad—none of which behavior contradicted her view of Southern women and marriage and motherhood, but somehow seemed to support it. So the only way I knew to rebel was be quiet myself, with silent denial against their blind acceptance, and show them fierce obedience—
Which I doubt they expected or even wanted. There was more to both of them, I know, and they did have private lives, but I didn’t see that much of these and ignored them whenever they appeared. I wouldn’t allow my parents what I couldn’t bear blossoming in me, blemishes of individuality, the signs of incompleteness. If I didn’t put up a fight, it was because I lacked the nerve. The changes, when they came, overwhelmed me without changing me into anything definite, much less different, so I was ready to cling to anything that would give my life a polished shape without rattling it more, even if my sheen came from wholesale rejection of something that didn’t exist. I grew up an abstraction in a world of abstractions.
And it’s as easy to think of them as reasonably happy in their lives as wretched and uptight. They were reserved, not repressed, and their silence, I suspect, was as much a way of keeping to themselves. Sometimes you have to nail down one part of your life in order to set the other parts free.
But really, they were somewhat modern people, who adapted where they had to. They never said that much of anything.
Maybe they just decided that what worked for my older sister should have been good enough for me. Marian turned out OK, or seems to have. At any rate, I doubt they gave their choice of where I should go to college much more thought beyond their fear of Chapel Hill. Here was what made me give in easily: I was scared of the place, though not like my parents of getting knocked up or having happen to me any of the things unimaginable to them that were happening there, but of getting lost in the big university where everybody went.
The girls school, beyond its blank stare at the Blue Ridge Mountains, looked at nothing else, and was named after the nondescript wife of one of Virginia’s statesmen—probably nondescript himself—but I never learned anything else about her because I refused to participate in the school’s hagiography. Mary was her first name—all prominent wives from the Southern past were called Mary—and Old Mary was the nickname we gave the school. With her name came the blessings of the Presbyterian religion, enshrined in a chapel that dominated the quad, a columned, stark building that had classical features but not proportions, which, without the steeple, could have passed for a bank. The quad itself, modeled, the school insisted, after Jefferson’s at UVA, only faintly imitated pater. Beyond the chapel, there were two lines of skinny brick buildings that once were dorms, in the middle, a pair of Greekish oddities, and at the other end a large space left vacant in honor of another building that burned down which, from the pictures, smacked of the plantation. Spreading from the quad, the buildings that came with the school’s growth into the twentieth century, newer constructions with poured concrete columns which flirted with modernity and tradition without catching either. Old Mary had been ravished by John Calvin. Yet she was what life had prepared me for, and just as much what I deserved, because I hadn’t taken any steps myself to escape the South, our past.
The new teachers at Old Mary, however, had. Veterans of the 60s, they launched a campaign on our Southern belleness that would have put General Sherman to shame. They were blunt, grim women who expected us to take the business of being a woman seriously. In the regular classes they taught, civilization got axed or turned on its head, gender was restored to language, and our mysterious enclosing organ emerged the figure that contained the other figures. The old burdens were replaced with heavier ones; the lightness of our fairer sex became charged with terrifying power. And even though it wasn’t required, we all felt compelled to take at least one course in their women’s studies from a fear and guilt we never knew before our mothers.
Ourselves, our bodies—who wants to be a woman when she grows up?
The old guard resisted the assault, but really followed suit by stepping their course work up, and the only confidence I had in high school but never cared about got shot to hell. I wasn’t as smart as I thought and soon was left behind. And it was hard to see what was liberating in the liberal arts. Their only purpose, at least in the way they were taught by all the profs, liberated or not, seemed to be to grind the world into a rigor and put us in our place. There was more to life than academics, I decided, but had nowhere else to turn, because aside from studying there was nothing else to do. Dorm life was dorm life, a tedious affair of communal grumbling and private invasions. Allison, my roommate was everything I thought I was supposed to be, blond, soft-spoken, agreeable, and gentle—and, needless to say, absurdly pretty. I hated her, of course, but had to be careful of what I said because she was also deadly literal.
Yet at least I discovered, using her as a gauge against the others, that I, a girl among girls and only among girls, freed from the judging eyes of males, fit somewhere in the middle and thus was moderately attractive—for all the good it did me there, because now I missed those stares. My hormones, quiet in high school, at Old Mary started screaming. Allison, however, had no trouble accommodating hers because soon she began spending weekends at Washington and Lee with a guy she met there at a mixer. Never mind how easy it was to dismiss her for her naiveté or that the guy was a jerk or that it was impossible to imagine any kind of worthwhile product from the two of them together—I was insanely jealous. Because if one can’t be anything in life, she might as well have some fireworks. And this was Allison’s worst offense, that Sunday night she’d return with a furtive, anxious look on her face that took her a few days to knead back into her usual pleasantness. Obviously they were hitting the sheets hard, but she wouldn’t let herself enjoy it.
Mind and body were split, and raced apart but went nowhere at a time in my life and at a place where they were supposed to come together, leaving whatever was left of me, a girl not in waiting but just waiting, lonely and depressed. Yet depressed for no good reason, because all I learned about myself at Old Mary was that I was average, and if I were honest, above average in most respects. But then this was what most made me miserable and desperate, that I had nothing to be miserable and desperate about.
I went for long walks in the hills, which didn’t help. From clearings, a sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which really were blue and genuinely mysterious, veiled by a mist too fine to reflect my moods or suggest any secrets or larger truths. And on a clear day in fall, the violence of the colors of turned leaves could take my breath away, making me wonder if humility might not be the only recourse there was in life.
Circumstances called for art, but it was just as much a time when a young woman was in need of an older man.
Mr. French wasn’t French and didn’t even look French. In fact, whatever his name conjured up when I first heard it, it was hard to imagine anyone further from what I had in mind. I couldn’t even tell on which side of forty he stood.
That first day, just before Thanksgiving break, leaving the dorm feeling exposed as much by an unseasonable coldness as the thought of what I was doing, then walking delicately over rasping leaves, as if stepping on my brittle self, then entering one of those old dorms on the quad, then seeing him, waiting, standing the way he stood, not as if he were between resting or moving but had taken the position he meant to have, as if standing there or anywhere were something one could do, as if once one had decided to stand, one could stand there or anywhere forever, seeing him standing, waiting at one of two old uprights squeezed into the tiny room—this building had been turned into music rooms, I had decided to take piano lessons, and Mr. French was going to be my teacher.
It was a private arrangement, almost. Mr. French was not part of the regular staff but hired from outside to come in. Music lessons, for some reason economic or academic, were not part of the curriculum, and I had to pay extra for them but received no grade or credit, which suited me fine because the way Old Mary thought about things or financed them was a large part of what I was trying to flee. The fact that I was taking lessons, though, would appear on my transcript. It was hard to get completely out from under her thumb.
Music was the obvious choice. Painting presented the problem of what to do with paintings, and I could only imagine making impossibly small miniatures I could hide in a drawer in my dorm room, yet still have to throw away before I went home. Writing meant I’d need to seclude myself somewhere, stay up late, and then have to account for my absence. In both I would have to take a course, which I’d have to explain to my parents as well. I couldn’t bear the thought of Mom and Dad discovering that I was taking some kind of stand, trying to do something with myself, or having everyone at school find I wasn’t.
Because in both I’d have to create a new person—the writer, the painter—I’d then have to conceal, but I didn’t know how long I could keep that act up and my life was schizophrenic enough as it was. And in both I’d have to fill blank paper with something from that person, a challenge as frightening as it was unthinkable, as I ran the risk of being shocked by that person or having her gross me out or, just as bad, liking her too much. Or I might feel compelled to create something from the New Woman, who would only bore me and everyone else to tears.
With music, however, the notes would be there on the page and I’d only have to follow them. Much as I shared everyone’s aversion, classical music was inevitable, but what we played in the dorms wasn’t doing anything for me except wearing ruts in my head. More importantly, classical music wouldn’t offend anyone or seem pretentious because everyone was also unanimous in their unflappable indifference to the stuff. At worst, I’d only look a little stuck up.
The piano I reached by process of elimination. Winds and brasses required doing odd, personal things with the mouth. Strings were too prissy and too exacting—I worried I’d forever be searching for the right note, running my hand up and down delicate necks that had no frets. Too many people were playing the guitar, and what they played was too hip or too folksy. And it had to be a solo instrument, because if I was going to wither away into nothingness, I could at least do it on my own terms. But I needed some support. A piano was tall, strong, yet neutral, and could stand on its own—
Or maybe it was the piano that came first in making my decision, and music and the rest followed. Rather the memory of a piano, the baby grand that sat in my grandmother’s unused parlor in that old house in backwoods North Carolina, the piano itself neglected, scratched and badly out of tune, whose yellowed keys stuck together when you pressed them down. Maybe the memory, or maybe the thought of my mother and aunts who once played it, and the idea of what they once were and had forgotten, or of what they might have been. But more than the thought of sound, a memory of the silence of the unplayed piano I knew and the way this silence transformed the parlor, the ungainly house that attempted distinction and fell short, the little run-down town where my grandfather managed to buy up half of whatever there was to own, the town and its sleepy, run-down people, and the raw fields of exhausted cotton and hale tobacco and the cinder block and corrugated steel factories that took their place, and the uncertain hills and stands of rough pines surrounding, transformed these not into some kind of Southern conception of things, if there ever was one, but into an idea the South had missed, because in its silence there were the possibilities of unplayed music, possibilities my mother and her sisters had not grasped, and which had not been grasped by those who came before or followed them in the South or anywhere else, the possibilities of some harmony that could bring the heart and head together, then lift and take them somewhere else—
Or maybe I thought music would somehow help me find a good man.
Neither hope, if I ever had them, chimed loudly when I first stepped into that room and saw Mr. French. He had all the features that set me on edge in a man—a long, worried face; wiry, oily hair; slender, nervous fingers; and a body not lean but thin, with sharp angles everywhere. Yet somehow he pulled it off, holding these irritations together in a balance, which, like the inch of ash on his perpetually lit cigarette, never fell. This poise was what I saw the first day, the last day, and all the days between. However it wouldn’t be accurate to say he never changed, but rather that he had found a way to consistently and evenly avoid a sameness.
He wasted no time in showing me what to do and how, explaining with a calm, deep voice that surprised me the need for correct posture, the way to raise my arms, bend my wrists, and curl my fingers above the keys. Next he introduced me the C major scale.
“Most think the C major scale is the easiest,” he said. “No flats or sharps, no black keys to trip over. But it’s because it’s the easiest that it’s the hardest.”
There was probably a larger point in this, but he had a way of making comments and not following them up for several weeks, or sometimes not at all.
Then he asked me to do with the piano what, for all the desperation or desire or whatever it was that brought me there, I hadn’t yet considered doing—play it. I stared at the box, the box stared back. If there were desire, then I must have realized I not only wasn’t going to find love, I wouldn’t even get a loving instrument, because its keys had turned before me into steps of towering stairs. Trembling, I started climbing, not quite slipping my thumbs under and swinging my hands over in synch, my right hand groping anxiously towards the higher sounds of heaven, my left following no more surely from the bass notes of hell. And once I made it to the top, I raced both hands back down, skipping a few steps on the way, then quickly withdrew them. Embarrassed as a kid, I contemplated leaving.
Mr. French, without wincing, sat at the other piano and played the scale himself with a clear, firm articulation of each note, as if he were demonstrating the proof of a theory, or just as resolutely destroying one. Then he got up, took my hands, touching them in a way they had never been touched before and haven’t since—as if they were my hands, as if they could do something, but just as much as if it didn’t matter whether they did anything or not—and placed them back over the keys, encouraging me to try again.
Thus touched and somewhat reassured, I did, stumbling up and down the stairs for several minutes, and while I didn’t succeed in proving anything, I did manage to reduce my haste and fear. But then he shocked me again by having me start on an actual piece of music, from Bartok’s Mikrokosmos.
“It means small world,” he said, referring to the title. The Mikrokosmos was a collection of six books of short pieces that drew from a variety of influences, classical and folk, East and West, which were designed to introduce beginning pianists to the various problems they might encounter in modern music—thus the small world, created from the larger. The pieces in the later books, however, though still short, could be quite complex and were technically demanding, music in their own right. Several, he explained, were still played in recital.
“In my opinion it is a personal statement, a set of positions that mattered to Bartok.”
And probably positions that mattered to Mr. French, whoever he was, wherever they might have put him, as he said this without emotion. He was well on the way to becoming inscrutable.
His reason for using the Mikrokosmos, however, was modest, to develop the skill of sight-reading. Bartok used intervals to which most were unaccustomed, thus the pieces forced beginners to pay attention to what was in the score rather than what they expected to hear.
“One has to see music to play it.”
Maybe a larger point in this as well, though he said it without conviction, as if he were only stating the obvious. Then he drew silent, which I assumed meant I was supposed to play. I put my hands where he showed me, then looked up at the page and fell into a daze.
The first note of the first piece of the first book, titled only with the digit 1, and all I had to do was press down my right thumb and left little finger at the same time I tapped my foot to keep the beat, hold them on C for two counts, then let up and go on to the next note. Yet when should I start my foot? How does one make the leap from silence to music? And would my thumb and finger come down together at the right time, with my foot, the beat? How hard was I supposed to push, how quickly release? How would I know when exactly two beats had passed, not one and seven-eighths or two and a sixteenth? What was I supposed to think about or do with my fingers while I waited? How would I be able to go from this note to the next in smooth transition without a stutter that would disrupt the tempo, possibly wreck time itself for all time? How could I fill those two perfectly shaped, inclined ovals with the mess of my imperfections, and if I ever got inside them, would I be able to get out again?
But there wasn’t that much to it—strictly five finger stuff, again in C major, so I didn’t have to hit the black keys or move my hands from where I glued them, and only about twenty seconds of half notes strung together in even steps, a leisurely stroll up and down a little hill, then up and down again, with two whole notes to vary the rhythm and a break of a half rest in the middle. Once I got started, it only took a few tries to find my way and work out the mechanics. Yet it still wasn’t music, so I played the piece again, this time adding what I thought #1 yet lacked—
Here Mr. French winced, though did so without looking at me. He sat down at the other piano again, composed himself a moment, as if in preparation for a lengthy, difficult work, and played #1 with the same care and deliberation as before. I’m sure he only intended to show to me how it was supposed to be played, but it seemed to me the only purpose of this demonstration was to surgically remove what I had tried to put in.
Lesson over, I left the music rooms, hearing nothing. Outside, the same scraggy ivy clinging to moldy brick; the same trees stripped as wholly as before, their leaves rotting on the ground in the same varying stages of decomposition; the same chapel whose spire pointed to the same indifferent, empty sky. Everything was exactly the way it was before, but was the same with an awful precision. Contempt is just a defense mechanism to protect ourselves: what familiarity really breeds is despair.
It wasn’t because I realized I was faced with the prospect of another discipline of dubious value, which, like my studies, would require long, hard work yet only reward me, at best, with some moderation of success. Nor did I honestly expect much more from the lessons than to get a respite from the bleak routine of school. Because at heart I am a realist, or have always tried to be one and always will. But realism needs some kind of flash, some flight to set it straight. What depressed me—and I know I wasn’t vamping—was that all I did was to try to turn the sterile little piece into music, and what Mr. French played didn’t sound like music.
Yet as I walked back through the cold, my hands felt warm.
Thanksgiving, then the last week of the quarter as well as the week of my second lesson, which I limped through as dutifully as I did my classes, then exams. Then a month home for Christmas break, and all I can remember is that I couldn’t wait until I got back. Certainly not to my classes, where I did no better or worse, or to the dorm, where I got along about as well. I might have said, had I seen it coming, to the heavy snow which fell in February and stayed on the ground several weeks, covering the campus, the hills, my spirits, seemingly all spirit with infinite white, releasing with its weightless oppression a mindless freedom. After a few days, however, my elation subsided as I realized the snow either was too much or not enough of what there might be to hope for.
It couldn’t have been to my lessons, either, where I continued to crawl through more scales, a methods book, and more of those little Bartok pieces. Or to Mr. French, who remained as impassive and remote as ever. I did, however, learn to adopt his demeanor, becoming cool and detached myself. In doing so, I was able to find not a rhythm, but at least a pattern that didn’t rub, which helped get me through my classes and move the time in tolerable chunks.
I didn’t know what I couldn’t wait to get back to, even while I was doing it, those late nights in April, with spring threatening, after several months of holding back, being cool, being detached, distancing myself from the desire, if it was a desire, that had taken me to Mr. French, the lessons, distancing myself from any hope, any desire, yet in the process creating a reservoir that was filling with that which displaced what I was holding back, and this I held back, too, which being checked, caused the reservoir to fill even more, fill with what I now saw had been in Mr. French all along, whose tank was already full and brimming, full not with passion but with its nameless counterpart without which passion has no edge. And seeing this in him, I still held back, thus was more filled each lesson by the quick, light, gray passes between us charged with quiet untouching, firm unwanting. Even the thought that he was both source and partner in this exchange was all the more cause to be cool, stay detached, and increase the distance from desire, from where it might go and find release, more cause to think even less about the chance that he might one day realize his involvement and respond—
Not find release, because there wasn’t tension, a bottling up of emotion straining to be set free, rather a flexing of some elastic mood that could not be pressed or contained, but played itself in unfelt ease. Unfelt because if felt, there wouldn’t be the ease—
Not ease, because it wasn’t easy, and again not ease, because ease still brings awareness of release, of strain—
Because I didn’t know I was doing it, even after I had been doing it for several weeks, which is why, after studying, I could cross the campus those late nights in April and go unhurriedly, unselfconsciously to the quad, stick a key in the door of one of those little rooms, open it and find waiting—
Maybe there were fantasies, scenes of body angles overcome by some inexorable yet intense physical geometry, images of parts exposed, joining in forceful, rapid rhythms, coming together in some improbable place—a dark, cramped practice room. Or in an undesirable place—a room in a seedy motel off campus, a seedier room in a tourist delight up in the hills. Or in some unimaginable place that only imagination can create. But like dreams in which characters and settings shift without ever settling, these fantasies never found completion and I didn’t have them long. Because even now, with an imagination sufficiently corrupted by experience, the only scene I can successfully envision of Mr. French and me together is the one that actually occurred, of the two of us sitting in the light of day, one at each piano, going through a lesson. I can’t even remember his first name, though he insisted I use it, because I would never let him be anyone other than Mr. French, my piano teacher.
And maybe there were scenes of sitting at a piano, by myself, solo, in the single spot of light on a darkened stage before a hushed crowd waiting to be moved to unutterable appreciation for what my hands were about to produce—but that was as far as those fantasies went, as I could never get them to play anything. Because it wasn’t the piano, either, since I gradually came to realize what Mr. French must have seen from the outset, that as far as music was concerned, I was a lost cause.
Yet still I continued, trampling through more pieces—early English sonatinas I could never elevate to the least degree of stateliness, little Bach pieces which I gave an archness that wasn’t Baroque or German, Czerny studies, those quick zippers of notes designed to develop facility and velocity that in my hands sounded like the desperate repetitive gestures of a lunatic—all of which Mr. French endured, all of which I still looked forward to, even though I never approached anything that might be called progress.
It would be difficult to explain the attraction to my lessons. Maybe there was relief in knowing that I was bad at something and could still keep going, or maybe in just knowing that in no unqualified terms I was bad. And it would be just as difficult to explain the change that occurred in me over the two years I took them, because I don’t think there was one, except that I grew deeply unattached to Mr. French and to the piano.
There were lessons within the lessons. He might drop one of his comments:
“The problem with Mahler is that he overextended his phrases.”
Mr. French, on music.
“Some blame Wagner for the Nazis. I blame the Nazis for the Nazis.”
His follow-up, made four or five lessons later. I wanted to believe he was Jewish, a refugee from refugees of flatulent eschatologies, the brutal nonsense these tend to shelter, but I don’t think he was.
Or, on a day I wasn’t prepared, he might play himself. Once, a Chopin Ballade he performed with a dispassion that sent shivers down my spine. Once Bartok’s “From the Diary of a Fly,” a piece in the last volume of the Mikrokosmos, a quick, complex, chromatic, almost atonal buzzing, which he played with a fervor that sent me into a flush.
“Woe, a cobweb—molto agitato e lamentoso!” Bartok’s gloss and tempo indication, said without mock agony.
“Con gioia, leggero. He escapes!” With real but measured joy.
“Bartok left Hungary when war broke out because the Aryan waltz turned his stomach,” he added when the piece was over. “But when he came over here, no one knew how to listen to him, so everyone hated his music. What’s the difference?” With regret, without resignation.
Or he might talk about his life, which was not going well. A shaky income from declining lessons, an uncertain position at a local high school where he was ignored. Not much chance, at his age, whatever it was, of starting another career.
I never learned enough about music to know how good he was, whether he was good but not quite good enough, or was good enough, but had a few bad breaks along the way that kept him from the concert halls and labels. What I do know now is that his looks weren’t smooth or catchy enough to stick on the cover of a CD.
A roof that leaked, a car on its last legs, a heart that sometimes skipped a beat. A son with leukemia. A wife and marriage that only got brief mention, about which, apparently, there wasn’t much more to be said.
These details he would drop matter-of-factly, without appeal for sympathy or pity, yet not with indifference or the coldness of stoic remove, but with the same engaged detachment that he gave to music. I sometimes wondered if he made all this up, just to put my own forced anxieties in context. Because the temptation is to say he was an angel sent to help me get my feet on the ground, or an inch above it. But the only statement I can make about Mr. French with any confidence is that as with me and my playing, as with his life, he did the best he could with what he got.
And at some point I learned I could get by without Mr. French and the piano. I became fairly serious about my studies, managing to hit the other side of B. Also I met a guy from UVA. Spring quarter of my sophomore year, I stopped practicing and missed half my lessons. Next fall I didn’t sign up and never touched the keys again.
But Bartok, but freshman year, but late at night, that chilly April, after I’d turn the key, open the door, hit the light, and see the piano waiting, after I positioned the bench and sat, already dizzy from the ethereal smells of a piano, the furniture polish outside, the shellac on felt hammers within, after I opened the lid and saw white keys and looked up and saw a black sky against the shadeless window, after I broke the silence of an otherwise empty room and began to practice his Mikrokosmos—then it seemed that the world stopped spinning, or maybe that it had never started. Because after I made the stroll up and down the hills of #1, I entered a world of unexpected turns, never quite going where I thought I was going, becoming less sure of what I left behind.
Even in the next few pieces, still five fingers of easy C, the phrases did not follow predictable patterns. I’d go up where I thought I was supposed to go down, or have to linger on whole notes where I felt the urge to go on, run into rests where I could not make myself stop. Then came a syncopation I couldn’t work out, then, in another piece, a sudden change in meter, a bar where Bartok put six quarter notes instead of four, as if such a shift were as natural as it was inevitable. Then the hands diverged and had to play different notes. In imitations that didn’t match neatly and ended in separate places. In counterpoints that joined tones which didn’t merge into a single sound but pulled apart, yet somehow belonged together in a way that questioned whether or not the harmony which unites four barbers so easily was such a good idea.
In the months that followed, I made it through three of the six books, some hundred short works that pointed to other places, other times, other ways of thought, without straying from the small world of the Mikrokosmos. Many based on Eastern European folk songs and dances, which didn’t make me want to dance or sing or wear a peasant frock, yet which didn’t preclude voice or motion and didn’t leave me naked. A pastorale that didn’t suggest the sounds of fields or shepherds, yet moved me to an unsettling peace. Some, titled with a technical phrase, approached lyrical calmness without turning me inward; others stayed this side of noise, where I began to feel at home. Meditations that could not be translated into words, a kind of thoughtless thinking. Pieces in Asian, Arabic modes that didn’t transport me to a mysterious East. Or in ecclesiastical modes that didn’t bring me to religion but made me want, at the same time, to assert and question belief. Even pieces in the traditional Western modes sounded different. If the major scales are happy and the minor sad, in Bartok’s work they were neither, but implied a mood not easily defined by moods, which could only exist in some indefinable region that lay between feeling and the formal ordering of his notes. And he used modes of his own invention that were enigmatic in the way they skirted both patness and supernatural levitation.
Still, I felt transported when I practiced, yet the only place the Mikrokosmos took me was back into the Mikrokosmos, a world consistent with itself, where all the notes fit once I got used to the ways Bartok put them together. But his small world seemed large, large as much in what it posited as in what it avoided, and more solid than the real one. And around two or three in the morning I’d leave the room in whatever state is the opposite of a mystical trance though still has its focus and suspense. I would still be the same person as the one who, hours ago, went in that room to practice. And I would still find the world, as I did the first day, exactly the same as it had been before. Yet it wasn’t a familiar world at all, or a world that led to despair. Because it seemed as if the real world and I had been stripped of what we had tried and could not hold, then torn apart and rebuilt, recreated into no more or less than what we were, though who or what this was—my revelation—was something I could never know. . . .
We keep going back and forth, Phil and I. Some months we talk about having a kid, others about getting a divorce. It’s not that we don’t care enough on the one hand, or that we do care on the other. Rather our problem is in making decisions and giving definition to our lives, but then vacillation is just another routine we picked up along the way. Lately, we’ve been leaning towards a kid, though tonight didn’t come close.
What the hell. Modern medicine says I have another five years, maybe with one of its miracles, even ten.
It is late and I cannot sleep; my husband is dead beside me. An account exec in a so-so agency, also an enlightened being who has something to say about everything—who makes me miss Dad. But really, Phil’s a sweet guy. Another Southerner, another fugitive, too, who, like me, has learned that the only way to distinguish ourselves in New York is to put on the Southern shtick of gentle manners and sweet, sloppy talk. They love it here, and it’s helped open a door or two. Still, we both work too hard at jobs that don’t mean that much to us and we don’t have much to show for it, other than a hefty credit line and this bed the size of New Hampshire.
I’m in marketing, too—everything is marketing, and all God’s chillun’ got marketing. Graduation from Old Mary without honors; then the waiting list, then a place in grad school at Chapel Hill, eventually an MBA. Finally, after a run of lousy jobs, my flight north to a more so-so position than Phil’s in a more so-so agency where we’re all still reeling from our latest blunder, a rollerblade campaign in Yugoslavia we launched just before the Serbs began shelling Sarajevo. Economic reform, youth, freedom was our take, and Milosevic seemed like an OK guy.
My life has not been music.
We’ll manage to recover, however, or at least find a way to repackage our guilt. And there’s new hope, a fresh wind from the East: the boys in research say that China has gone capitalist whole hog, that it’s time to think cellular phones.
How quickly, how loudly our country lifts us in our dreams, how softly it cushions our fall and reabsorbs us.
It’s a small world.
I get up and open the blinds to find company, or at least some kind of presence. Out the window, night, city lights, and Manhattan noise. It’s a scary place to think about having a kid.
And Mozart—I hear Mozart. How is this possible?
Then I realize it’s my neighbor next door, a little Vietnamese girl who can’t be more than eight. A few weeks ago I saw her in the hall and complimented her on how much she had improved. She blushed, apologized, and turned away, perhaps because she thought she might be disturbing us, as well as was embarrassed to realize her practicing wasn’t private. Until this moment, she hasn’t played since.
That quiet, serious face—I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her. Before I spoke to her she’d practice until late, and for the last month had been working on the same piece, playing it over and over again, hours on end without a break. There’s a perseverance here that borders on obsession, hers or someone else’s.
She may be the child of boat people, survivors of flimsy vessels, tropical storms, looting, rape, and convictions, who encourage her to play in an attempt to hide the memory of these horrors. Then again, her family seems to do well enough—this is not a cheap building we live in—and she may as easily be the child of a pragmatist, one of those South Vietnamese generals who took the money and ran, who’s now having his daughter learn piano to dignify his corruption. Either way, music is poor dressing on the ugliness it might be trying to cover.
Of course it is possible neither is true, or that either circumstance, if true, has been washed out by so many years of life in the US that it no longer matters. Or there may be something milder and simpler at stake, an Asian custom, that mania of losing themselves in a culture—the one before them now is ours—and doing so with a mechanical determination that misses the spirit, the point.
Besides, I’m treading on stereotypes, and her situation may be even simpler yet: she’s just a girl who for some reason has decided to play the piano, who, unlike me, is diligent and intends to stick it out. Whatever the case, she has taken my heart and I’ve wanted to speak again and somehow reach her—but what could I tell her, except not to make the mistakes I have made? That, and let her know there’s no salvation in perfection.
What she had been practicing all that time and is playing now is Mozart’s Sonata in C major, a.k.a. Sonata facile, a primer from another time when people sounded like they knew what they were saying. Those quick, clean runs of scales, the pedaling bass, the twittering trills, the drama of breathless departure from the tonic, the effortless return in recapitulation—formulas following the easeful logic of some well-oiled teleology. Listening, I can see clear skies and lots of light, and hear lords and ladies holding glittering conversations as they walk on symmetrically laid paths, sauntering among the fountains, trimmed shrubs, and statues of cherubs in the garden behind the asylum for the reasonable and deranged hopeful.
Maybe I’m not being fair to Mozart.
Maybe I’m being too fair.
Back out the window. It is possible to imagine that the buildings’ lights are stars and see in their clusters constellations, figures of beings from up on high who watch over us and every now and then toss down a word. Then again, it is possible to imagine anything—a Christmas tree, a baseball score, a liquor bottle—and these are things we have done and I have seen. All it takes is flicking some switches.
Between the lights and me, the sounds of the random play of ecstasy, our working out all the possible permutations of money, sex, and violence.
There’s no end to the things we can create.
There’s no end to the things we can destroy with our creations.
Yet which way does irony fall? Is it the street noise that mocks the Mozart, or is Mozart the hoax the streets bought into, their noise abortive attempts to figure out how to play him?
But still she persists with that sonata. What I want to believe is that what I wish to hear is what I actually do hear, that she is playing the piece with delicacy and grace. There can’t be any harm in getting a few notes right. At any rate, it’s a relief to hear her practicing again.
Also, the slow movement is beautiful.
It’s a scary place to think about having a kid, but I suppose she should have a shot.
Now the urge to wake this slumbering brute and see if I can jumpstart him. Instead, however, I will stay up listening to Mozart. When she stops, maybe a tranquil sleepless night, to myself. It’s been a while..
Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. He has written two novels, and his short stories have also appeared in the minnesota review, New Novel Review, Confrontation, The New Review, The Santa Clara Review, The South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and another novel.
Aleksander Hemon‘s story, “The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders,” works as a list story. Alphonse Kauders is a Zelig like character with access to some of the past century’s worst men. Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin, Tito and Gavrilo Princip all have direct contact with Kauders. Kauders even impregnates Eva Braun. The story basically involves a series of philosophical musings about Kauders likes and dislikes, about his predilections for pornography, about his fascination with fire, and about his hatred of watches and horses.
Like other list stories I’ve read, Hemon uses repeated images and patterns to substitute for traditional structural devices. There were many memorable lines from this story:
One of Alphonse Kauder’s seven wives had a tumor as big as a three-year old child.
Alphonse Kauders was a Virgin in his horoscope. And in his horoscope only.
Alphonse Kauders said to Eva Braun: “Money isn’t everything. There is some gold too.”
“Since the day I was born, I have been waiting for Judgement Day. And the Judgement Day is never coming. And, as I live, it is becoming all to clear to me. I was born after the Judgement Day.”
The strange, perplexing part of this story comes at the end. There are a series of explanatory ‘Notes’ at the end of the story. In these notes, the author (apparently directly) gives historical context and commentary on some of the real people who figured in the story as well as on various books and historical events. I’m not sure what to make of these notes. Are they supposed to represent some kind of ironic statement about the story? Is the author of the notes Hemon? Is the author of the notes someone else (in the sense of the original story, say an absent narrator?) The strange thing for me was how the notes (which take up almost 4 pages) seem to be really outside the formal construction of the story. Yet when you read the notes, they seem straight forward and un-stylized. Here’s an example:
Richard Sorge was a Soviet spy in Tokyo, undercover as a journalist, eventually becoming a press attaché in the German embasssy. He informed Stalin that Hitler was going to attack the Motherland, but Stalin trusted Hitler and disregarded the information. The first time I read about Sorge I was ten and, not even having reached the end of the book, decided to become a spy. At the age of sixteen, I wrote a poem about Sorge entitled “The Loneliest Man in the World.” The first verse: “Tokyo is breathing and I am not.”
Is the ‘I’ of this note Hemon, commenting directly on this historical figure (who also appears in the story) or is it something else? Part of my dilemma with this is that the notes seem obvious and basic, while the story is strange. Does the reader really need an explanation of the Yalta Conference?
It would be interesting to see how Hemon approaches the story for a reading. Does he read the notes too? Anyway, this has plagued me now for a few days.
It’s a huge pleasure to introduce Adam Westra to Numéro Cinq readers. Adam is a philosopher and translator and he happens to be studying Kant. This amazing essay proves that good writing exists in many forms and many arenas, that there is beauty in clarity, that vigorous, surprising prose is not just the province of the novelist and memoirist. Adam grew up in Calgary, with a year-long interlude in southern France at the age of seven, after which he went to a French Lycée, then Western Canada High School. He escaped to the Netherlands for a year before heading to the University of British Columbia, where he did a B.A. in Honours Philosophy (2003-2007). Thence to Montreal to do a Master’s in Philosophy at the Université de Montréal (2007-2009; thesis title: La Critique de la raison pure, une oeuvre inachevée). Now working on his Ph.D. in Philosophy in Montreal and Berlin on the role of analogy in philosophical thinking, with a particular emphasis on Kant.
Douglas Hofstadter is an author worth reading: he has something to say, and he says it well. This fact jumped off the page with the 1979 publication of his brilliant, Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (GEB). This eccentric, eclectic and electrifying book fascinated all kinds of readers for all kinds of reasons, and its audacious young author was instantly hailed as a one-of-a-kind, ‘geeky genius’.  The irony, as Hofstadter himself points out, in both the Preface to the 20th anniversary edition of GEB (1999) and again, in the Preface to his most recent work, I Am A Strange Loop (2007), is that while his first book’s success allowed him to capture the attention of a wide audience, as well as to secure an exceptionally free and well-supported academic position (notably the ‘Fluid Analogies Research Group’ at the University of Indiana) for pursuing his ideas, the most central – and original – insight contained in GEB, namely, “the parallel between Gödel’s miraculous manufacture of self-reference out of a substrate of meaningless symbols and the miraculous appearance of selves and souls in substrates consisting of inanimate matter” seems nevertheless to have gone unheard, like “a shout into a chasm” (SL, xiii). His goal in Strange Loop is therefore to reformulate, re-explain, and also to explore new aspects of this very insight – and this time, with “maximal clarity” (SL, xvii). 
Indeed, one of the very first, and most significant, points that Hofstadter makes in this work is that what he says and how he says it, (and also that it is he who’s saying it), are inextricably bound together. In particular, Hofstadter takes analogy “very seriously”, having spent the greater part of his career studying its role in human thought:
“[…] I specialize in thinking about thinking. Indeed […] this topic has fueled my fire ever since I was a teen-ager. And one of my firmest conclusions is that we always think by seeking and drawing parallels to things we know from our past, and that we therefore communicate best when we exploit examples, analogies, and metaphors galore, when we avoid abstract generalities, when we use very down-to-earth, concrete, and simple language, and when we talk directly about our own experiences” (SL, xv).
And virtually all of the points, major and minor, that are made in the subsequent 350 pages are accordingly expressed by means of more-or-less explicit analogies (the formulations “just as … so”, “similarly”, “by contrast”, etc., are ubiquitous) and an amazing variety of concrete imagery, often drawn from everyday life. Now, in both this important descriptive claim about the analogical/metaphorical nature of human cognition (“we always think”), as well as the consequent normative claim regarding the optimal form of conceptualization and reasoning (“we therefore communicate best”), Hofstadter’s starting-point and consequent approach to the study of the mind differ fundamentally from the “Snow is white” propositional model of human language and thought that is often used as a paradigm in contemporary analytic philosophy. In fact, this view of his actually comes much closer to that of the emerging “embodied cognition” movement – despite the curious fact that he never mentions the latter specifically – whose representatives, such as Mark Johnson and George Lakoff, argue – like Hofstadter, on the basis of neuroscientific research, and, again like Hofstadter, to a relatively wide audience – that all human thinking, including philosophical reflection, emerges from the body via a metaphorically-mediated process of abstraction. In any case, Hofstadter’s recognition of the importance and power of analogical thought is in itself a remarkable and distinctive contribution to a philosophical scene in which analogy is largely dismissed or ignored.
The book’s twenty-four chapters (each one divided into idiosyncratically titled sections) can, grosso modo, be divided into two main parts: in chapters 1-14, Hofstadter gradually builds up his theory of the Self (or “soul” or “I” or “consciousness” – all synonymous terms for him); in chapters 15-24, he draws some consequences from his central insight, responds to objections, and takes a stab at some traditional and contemporary philosophical problems.
The core ideas of the book all come together in Chapter 20, featuring a dialogue (a form familiar to GEB readers), between two characters, Strange Loops #641 and #642, who represent, respectively, Hofstadter and an imaginary skeptic. Now, the challenge for Hofstadter is to make comprehensible (without necessarily proving) how the notion, nay even the feeling of identity – that there is “something it is like” to be me – emerges from a merely physical substrate, such as – but not necessarily limited to – the human brain, which is composed of neurons, which are in turn composed of molecules, and so on all the way down to quantum particles – which, for Hofstadter, is where the “true causality” of the physical universe ultimately resides (SL, 297) – and this, without having recourse to any form of metaphysical or supernatural dualism. To the skeptic, then, who balks at the very prospect of providing an account of consciousness in such a framework, he offers the following hypothesis:
I sympathize with your sense of the barrenness of a universe made of physical phenomena only, but some kinds of physical systems can mirror what’s on their outside and can launch actions that depend upon their perceptions. That’s the thin end of the wedge. […] When perception takes place in a system with a truly rich, fluidly extensible set of symbols [e.g. a non-embryonic, non-infantile human brain], then an ‘I’ will arise just as inevitably as strange loops arise in the barren fortress of Principia Mathematica (SL, 282).
Now, the “symbols” invoked here do not designate arbitrary tokens, nor the images encountered in myth or dream, but rather the physical correlates (in the case of a human brain, the specific neural structures) ‘triggerable’ by certain abstract concepts; “perception” is just the ‘triggering’ or activation of such structures, whether through sensation, memory, or imagination. For example, the specific brain structure activated when you see or think of the Eiffel Tower is your “Eiffel Tower symbol”, and this activation is just what it is to perceive the Eiffel Tower (SL, 76). Crucially, the human brain’s system of symbols is so complex that it possesses a virtually unlimited or “universal” representational capacity (in Turing’s sense of “universal computability,” described in Chapter 17).
This is where the central analogy with Gödel’s ‘Incompleteness Theorem’ comes in: according to Hofstadter, Gödel’s great discovery consisted in showing, by means of a sophisticated mapping technique, that the formal system contained in Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica inevitably produces, because of its universal representational capacity, certain self-referential statements, or “strange loops”. An analogous phenomenon is just as inevitably produced in the brain, and this, combined with humans’ “innate blindness” to the inner workings of our own brains, i.e. “our inability to see, feel or sense in any way the constant, frenetic churning and roiling of micro-stuff, all the unfelt bubbling and boiling that underlies our thinking” (SL, 204) effectively makes us hallucinate an “I”, a Self which – or rather, who – seems to run the show, i.e. whose apparent causal agency according to beliefs and desires feels like the “realest” thing in the world (SL, 202). In a word, the “I” is not the starting-point, but rather the gradual outcome of a complex process of perception that twists back on itself, thereby giving rise, over time, to an ineradicable, yet indispensable, illusion: “I” (SL, 204). Again, Hofstadter is not necessarily trying to prove this claim as a definitive theory of consciousness, but rather sees himself as offering a new perspective on the mind, a sort of ‘Copernican Revolution’: “My claim that an ‘I’ is a hallucination perceived by a hallucination is somewhat like the heliocentric viewpoint – it can yield new insights but it’s very counterintuitive, and it’s hardly conducive to easy communication with other human beings, who all believe in their ‘I’s with indomitable fervor” (SL, 293). More fundamentally, Hofstadter offers a distinctive vision of the human condition (or at least a new variation on an ancient and recurring theme): insofar as we cannot help believing in the “story” we tell ourselves – namely, that each one of has, or rather is, an “I” – it then follows that “the human condition is, by its very nature, one of believing in a myth” (SL, 295).
The skeptic’s recurring objection to this picture is the following: “Where, in this picture, am I? Where is the something-it-is-like to be me? Where are my qualia?” In a paradoxical vein, Hofstadter (i.e. Strange Loop #641) replies that this ‘special feeling’ combined with the skeptic’s very resistance to the idea that the “I” could merely be the product of blind and invisible particles, just are the illusion he has described; furthermore, the I arises only out of a special kind of physical system: one characterized by an abstract, recursive pattern called a “strange loop,” analogous to a Gödelian self-referential statement.
It is at this exact point, I believe, that this crucial analogy between the strange loop in the brain and Gödel’s strange loop is at its weakest. Specifically, one could object that the ways in which the self-referential patterns emerge in the two cases do not seem to be analogous at all. On the one hand, Hofstadter is committed to saying that the Self emerges from the brain “automatically,” or “inevitably,” as only in this way can the emergence of consciousness be envisaged as taking place under the strictly physical, deterministic laws that constitute the “true causality” of the universe; otherwise, some sui generis mental substance (which he mockingly dubs “feelium” or “élan mental”) would ostensibly be required to explain the insertion of the “I” into the otherwise barren physical universe, devoid of properly ‘mental’ phenomena. Now, Hofstadter repeatedly justifies this claim by analogy with the way in which Gödel’s “strange loop” arises, as at the end of the longer passage quoted above (SL, 282), and again quite clearly here:
Consciousness […] is an inevitable emergent consequence of the fact that the system has a sufficiently sophisticated repertoire of categories. Like Gödel’s strange loop, which arises automatically in any sufficiently powerful formal system of number theory, the strange loop of selfhood will automatically arise in any sufficiently sophisticated repertoire of categories, and once you’ve got self, you’ve got consciousness. Élan mental is not needed (SL, 325, my emphasis in bold).
But does this analogy really hold? More precisely, does it make sense to say that a self-referential Gödelian statement “arises automatically” qua “natural and inevitable outcome of the deep representational power” of Principia Mathematica’s formal system (SL, 161)?
The trouble is that such an interpretation of the analogy does not appear to be consistent with Hofstadter’s own characterization of Gödel’s proof. In Chapters 8-12, Hofstadter mounts an impressive attempt to explicate Gödel’s procedure and to convey his own sense of its significance. According to this picture, however, Gödel’s “strange loop” seems to be the very opposite of “natural and inevitable”: indeed, the sophisticated and recondite procedure by which the young Austrian mathematician painstakingly crafted his proof appears entirely artificial and arbitrary. And crucially, it is this very procedure that constitutes the “why” of Gödel’s strange loop: the latter did not “automatically” emerge from within Principia Mathematica’s formal system, but was, rather, intentionally produced from the outside. As Hofstadter himself writes: “Gödel carefully concocted a statement about numbers and revealed that, because of how he had designed it, it had a very strange alternate meaning” (SL, 171, my emphasis in bold). In other words, the representational power of the formal system described in Principia Mathematica is merely the condition of the possibility of the emergence of a strange loop, not its cause (in logical terms: a merely necessary, not a sufficient condition). Therefore, one cannot say that the strange loop is a “natural and inevitable” product of the formal system itself; rather, it is clearly the artificial and arbitrary product of Gödel’s artificial and arbitrary design which, it could be argued, clearly presupposes a deliberate act of consciousness to begin with. In other words, while the formal system may indeed talk about itself, as Hofstadter insists, it does not do so by itself, but only because Gödel makes it speak. So, returning to the analogy with the brain/consciousness, we must now ask: if Gödel’s strange loop does not in fact arise “automatically” from a substrate of meaningless formal symbols, then why should we think that consciousness emerges “automatically” from a substrate consisting of inanimate matter? Indeed, we could even invert the analogy, in true Hofstadteresque fashion, substituting ‘God’ for ‘Gödel’: just as Gödel’s strange loop only emerges as the product of his consciousness, so are the strange loops constitutive of our respective ‘I’s produced in the consciousness of God! From Hofstadter’s physicalism we end up with full-blown idealism à la Berkeley. We need not go so far, of course; the point is just to stress that Gödel’s intentional mathematical procedure does not seem to be an adequate analogue for the blind physical process through which consciousness ostensibly arises.
Now, Hofstadter would surely respond to the above objection as follows: while the ultimate source of the Self does indeed reside at the level of physical particles governed by universal causal laws, the strange loop as such only arises at a much higher level of abstraction, namely, the level of perception, categories, and symbols:
The sole root of all these strange phenomena is perception, bringing symbols and meanings into physical systems. To perceive is to make a fantastic jump from William James’ “booming, buzzing confusion” to an abstract, symbolic level. And then, when perception twists back and focuses on itself, as it inevitably will, you get rich, magical-seeming consequences. Magical-seeming, mind you, but not truly magical. You get a level-crossing feedback loop whose apparent solidity dominates the reality of everything else in the world (SL, 300, my emphasis in bold).
The most obvious objection here, from an idealist-phenomenological perspective, is of course that this symbolic, meaningful perception presupposes consciousness: meaning is not ‘read off’ the raw data of sensation, but rather ‘read into’ the latter. The same presupposition holds, a fortiori, for Gödel’s proof of the Incompleteness Theorem, qua deliberate cognitive act: Gödel’s strange loop only arises as a meaningful statement to the extent that it has been consciously constructed, i.e., produced by an intentional “act” or “arbitrary synthesis,” to use Kant’s terms. Obviously, explaining consciousness with consciousness can’t be what Hofstadter intends, as it amounts to begging the question, and even worse, begging it in the wrong way, as all true, ‘non-magical’ explanation, for him, must ultimately be in physical terms. But this makes the following question all the more pressing: in what sense are we to understand his claim that perception, qua abstract-physical process, will “inevitably” twist back on itself? Exactly what kind of necessity is being invoked here? Are we talking about the blind necessity proper to the physical substratum of the universe or we are talking at the abstract, symbolic, meaningful level? In the first case, we retain “inevitability” qua “true causality” of the universe, but on the other hand we lose abstract perception at this unfathomably lower level of neurons and seething particles. In the second case, we keep all of the ingredients for self-referential ‘strangeness’, i.e., perception, abstract categories, symbols, etc.; however, at this higher level of abstraction, we lose any meaningful (i.e. physical) sense of “inevitability”. However, these two levels are – indeed must be – incommensurable: recall that perception, and with it, the very possibility of ‘strangeness’, according to Hofstadter, depend on our “blindness” to the physical substrate of our thinking (SL, 204, quoted above). Whence the following dilemma: self-referential “strange loops”, as such, can only arise inevitably to the extent that they are not strange and, conversely, can only be strange to the extent that they are not inevitable. In other words, consciousness and physical necessity, as characterized by Hofstadter, do not seem to be conceptually or ontologically compatible. The fundamental question that Strange Loop was meant to answer must be posed anew: Whence the “fantastic jump” from the physical substrate to consciousness?
In the second part of the book, Hofstadter goes on to confront this perspective with the conceptions of other philosophers of mind (such as ‘Descartes’, John Searle, Derek Parfit, David Chalmers, and Daniel Dennett) and tackle some traditional and contemporary problems in the philosophy of mind (e.g. mind-body dualism, the so-called Inverted Spectrum Hypothesis, the free-will problem, etc.). In so doing, he makes heavy use of outlandish “thought experiments”, making this section of the book quite stimulating. He also engages with the conceptual creations of other philosophers, cleverly showing how ambiguous and misleading some of these rival scenarios can be (the ones concocted by Searle, in particular). But the sword is double-edged: after a few such skillful deconstructions, one can’t help but view his own conceptual scenarios with the same measure of suspicion. 
Moreover, Hofstadter’s treatment of certain philosophical problems (especially the ones he dubs the ‘Sacred Cows’) can come off as facile. For example, he seems to attack the – inappropriately named – ‘Inverted Spectrum Hypothesis’ as if it were just that, i.e., an empirical hypothesis about more or less rare cases involving human perception, and proceeds to put its empirical plausibility into doubt. It could be noted, first of all, that the slightly milder hypothesis that human beings perceive colours differently as a result of slight variations in their sense organs is not at all implausible from an empirical point of view; it is an established fact. More fundamentally, however, the Inverted Spectrum Hypothesis, from a properly philosophical point of view, has nothing to do with its empirical plausibility (a license that Hofstadter frequently claims for his own thought-experiments). The purpose of the thought-experiment (as employed by Wittgenstein, for example) is rather to paint a logical picture, as it were, from which one ‘reads off’ the conceptual links between ostensible mental states or ‘qualia’, on the one hand, and language, on the other. E.g., how and what am I ‘referring to’ when I utter the sentence: “The stop sign is red.”? Is it philosophically justifiable to invoke qualia here (i.e. the felt ‘redness’ of the sign to me, ‘in my head’, so to speak) or will some form of social convention offer a more plausible account (say, that the ‘redness’ of the sign consists in its use in a particular language-game: in this case, to indicate that one must stop one’s vehicle at the sign)? In the latter case, moreover, the ostensible qualia drop out as irrelevant anyway, empirical (im)plausibility notwithstanding.
Hofstadter is far more insightful, convincing, and at times even poignant – both intellectually and emotionally –when he wrestles with the mysteries of everyday life, his own in particular. Thus, the idea that other people to some extent live on inside us (that we are able, to a certain extent, to reproduce foreign “strange loops” in our brains) can come off as merely bizarre in the imaginary “Twinwirld”, but suddenly becomes, not just more plausible, but deeply insightful, even poetic, in Hofstadter’s passionate and earnest wrestling with the sudden loss of his wife Carol, his own “soul-mate”. Indeed, the earnestness and beauty of these reflections bear witness to the fact that Hofstadter’s work is more than merely idiosyncratic (even if brilliantly so); in reality, he has, in his distinctively playful way, something serious – because deeply personal, and hence genuinely human – to say. And for this reason, perhaps more than any other, his Strange Loop is well worth incorporating into your own.
If I permit myself this expression, it’s only because I have the feeling that Hofstadter himself wouldn’t be insulted by this appellation, and might even be pleased by it.↵
Douglas Hofstadter, I Am A Strange Loop, New York: Basic Books, 2007. 412 pages. Henceforth abbreviated as SL. All italics in quoted passages are Hofstadter’s.↵
While he does intend to contribute to the philosophical debate on the nature of mind and self, Hofstadter explicitly forswears attempting to prove his point of view, finding the typical ‘proofs’ that philosophers tend to give of their theories to be ultimately futile. His primary purpose is not to convince, but to communicate, and only thereby to change his readers’ way of looking at things (in this case, at them-selves).↵
In the Index, under the heading “analogies, serious examples of”, Hofstadter lists close to one hundred entries! Some examples: “between the author’s mind and others’ minds”; “between dog looking at pixels and Russell looking at Gödel’s formula”; “between gems in Caspian Sea and powers in Fibonacci sequence”; “between mosquito and flush toilet”; “between self-symbol and video feedback”.↵
Hofstadter seems to have arrived at this analogy independently of Kant, who is never mentioned. See the Preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (B xvii) for the latter’s famous “Copernican Revolution” in metaphysics, also presented as a justification for a change of theoretical perspective.↵
The felt quality of certain states of consciousness, often, but not limited to, sensation; e.g.: the ‘blueness’ of the light coming through a stained-glass window, the ‘tastes-like-cheap-coffeeness’ of a cheap cup of coffee, the ‘pastoralness’ of the note F-major, etc.↵
See the chapter of the Critique of Pure Reason on mathematical method, “On the Discipline of Pure Reason in Its Dogmatic Use” (A 712-738 / B 740-766), as well as the paradigmatic example of ‘Thales’ proof’(B xi-xiii)↵
That is, the so-called doctrines of “Cartesian dualism” and the “Cartesian ego” which are widely bandied about, seldom with adequate reference to their original context.↵
That being said, Hofstadter’s ingenious playfulness, unfortunately rare among philosophers, is only to be encouraged; indeed, this aspect of his writing is more reminiscent of the intelligent and creative playfulness exhibited by certain artists and musicians (Glenn Gould comes to mind).↵
Herewith a sermon by VCFA graduate Hilary Mullins, not a former student of mine, though she was in a novel workshop with me once, just a friend, but an old and good friend who comes up to the campus every residency to visit and sits in for a lecture or two or a reading. I has fond memories of long evenings spent in Francois Camoins’ room in Noble with Hilary and Ralph Angel and any number of students and faculty rotating in and out. Good friends, good conversation.
I offer this sermon in the Numéro Cinq spirit of subversiveness and outlawry. Once upon a time, the sermon was a hot nonfiction form. Books of sermons were routinely published and became best sellers. Nowadays, creative nonfiction is pretty narrowly defined and almost all literary prose has turned secular. I offer this sermon to remind you of a form, now too often ignored, a vibrant form that by definition looks to the deepest places of the human heart. Also to remind you to look to the side, to avoid defining yourselves, your reading and your writing too narrowly.
Hilary Mullins, Author’s Note:
Sermons are a great form, and–as a writer addressing other writers–I am here to tell you it’s a form you do not have to be ordained to practice. You should be informed of course, but that is not the same as being ordained. In my case, I’ve taken a couple of seminary classes plus a three-year lay training program in Vermont where I live. I have also studied a fair amount on my own. But that is all. And yet it’s enough.
Naturally, since I also run the services I preach at, my sense of the sermon’s potential exceeds the parameters of the sermon itself. For me the form is the whole service: from the prelude and call of worship, to the first hymn and prayer, to the sustained silence that comes next, and on and on, each element flowing along in the larger structure of the liturgy, creating an ongoing rhythm that, if you do it right, wakes people up—to themselves, to each other, to the deeper river running through all things.
But as for the sermon itself, it has its own dynamics as well. Even more obviously than a short story or an essay, the sermon is a wonderfully flexible form that you can shape shift in just about any direction that will serve, mixing facts and figures with quotations or poetry, alternating straight-up exegesis with story. And in the liberal denominations I work in, which are Unitarian Universalist and Congregationalist, I have the freedom to work with texts beyond the Bible. For instance, when it comes to picking scripture for a Sunday, I have often paired a Biblical passage with a poem, using works by Rumi, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Some denominations won’t allow this, it’s true. But the limitations are not in the form itself.
Then there are effects that, though they don’t play in a reprinted sermon, work well in person with a congregation before you. Smile when you stand up, and they’ll smile back. Then as you get going, talk quiet or talk loud, slow up, slow down, use your body. Speak as if you were a channel for something good and something good can happen. And maybe best of all, the thing that other writers so rarely get to do: look in their eyes. Worlds are there. And they will come forth as they look back at you.