- Books, Literature, and Writing
They Did Not Change the World
This morning I read about a man who spent years following a falcon. To me, he lived a strange life. He was not a "bird person", only captivated by an unremunerative profession. The business of ingesting the written word, then writing about it, is, with notable exceptions, not dissimilar. It also has something to do with regurgitation, which was once, as students, how we interpreted the learning process. You cannot write if you do not read, though lazier writers disagree. Most of the time, I read books that are topical. Some merely supplement the news. They yield percolating ideas that sometimes lead to articles. That has been the whole point all along. I have the writer's bug. I see Hubpages as freelance journalism, or the road to it. But instead of stepping out to interview the rich and famous, or get to the scene of the latest crime, I prefer the company of books. Lots go into them, especially the history category, in which authors spend years rummaging around documents and photographs, recording fading memories, and, again, reading books by opinionated authors. But this one in particular enabled me to take a nice step backward and regain lost objectivity. What is it that I have been doing all these years for nothing in the way of monetary compensation? Well, I only just read about pigeons crowding important buildings who do not care about what it means, or the people inside or outside. It takes all kinds, as they say, human or animal. The man cited above, who took on side jobs, then watched a falcon, all day long, if he could, wrote about the experience, but did not change the world or set it on fire.
I like book people, even if my fondness for them is not reciprocated. Some do not read. They sell, market, represent, or arrange tours. But forget about them. I like John Gray's The Silence of Animals. One can read the table of contents and get a fairly good idea how the essay rambles, according to the author's own idiosyncracies. Conrad and other lesser known writers start it off. Koestler and Zweig weigh in. Orwell introduces a brief discussion on Totalitarianism. A memoir of Haffner and his escape from Germany adds a name unbenownst to me, among many another, who wrote meaningfully, but remained partly shadowed in obscurity. A negative evaluation of Marx gives the book a House and Garden seal of approval. All the same, today's economy is an unholy mess -- capitalist or not, probably the latter. Socrates, Plato, Montaigne, and Spencer tend toward humanism and Social Darwinism. Freud's refusal to give up cigars despite cancer is covered. All this, in my opinion, is interesting, and comes straight from books, or maybe drunken gossip at cocktail parties. For a while, several scribblers did in fact change the world and set it on fire. But I believe I can implant into the collective mind a seed that will grow on its own. Ultimately, it will tell how the time of authors and ideas, no matter how grand, has almost passed. The world, too, has moved on.
Enter the Heavyweights
Probably the most interesting writer, in my opinion, is Hans Vaihinger. Attending classes in the 1870s, he used a grant to switch from theology to philosophy. His main contribution had to do with a theory dealing with the mind. Its thoughts are purely biological, he claims, and thus, it seems, only produce the fictitious, judged advantageous to selfish, human existence. Conjectural might have been a more accurate accessment. But fictitious will do. Vaihinger's main work is The Philosophy of As-If. People must live "as if" the world were like this, that, or the other, according to the regnant point-of-view. In it, he points out, not all fictions are alike. But there is no getting away from them. The greater questions philosophers and all manner of deep thinkers engage and try to ascertain, are beyond reach. I can hardly read Vaihinger in an original translation. I have trouble with philosophers. I am told that philosophy is perfectly useless, but that its students, if they so choose, make superb lawyers. Nonetheless, I picked up on Vaihinger's enthusiasm for the scholastics of the last two decades of the 19th century. Today, I would have advised the younger enfant terrible to abandon philosophy and philology altogether for the sake of theology, exactly the opposite of what he picked. The prevailing winds have shifted. After existentialism and the aphorisms of Eric Hoffer, who wants to hear about it? Whereas, the End Times sell.
False assumptions underly not only Vaihinger but everybody else of his ilk and era. They have to do with infinite progress. The subtitle of Gray's book is, in fact, "On Progress and Other Modern Myths". No such thing(s). At the fin-de-siècle, it must have seemed that progress would go on forever. The 20th century basically confirmed as much. Inventions improved upon inventions. Obsolescence gave rise to innovations. The overall pace of life, not only in the ritzy fast lane, sped up exponentially. In fact, I think I could make an argument about how both world wars had something to do with competition for the products of progress, in whatever shape and form: cars, planes, trains, motorcycles, clothes, factories, stocks and bonds, music and the arts, you-name-it. But in a hundred and twenty five years or so, after progress morphed into high tech, it only excites the minds of those so inclined. Many would like for it to stop, or level off. It has definite limitations, too. It cannot develop perpetual motion or cold fusion. No peace in the Middle East, needless to add. There is still no space travel. To be honest, survivalism eclipses just about everything, except religion, which claims, through a Savior, to have conquered death. Bright futures are contemplated, either in terms of technology, or a glorious kingdom of heaven. Good luck to us all!
Not Lots to Say Out Loud
Writers and the Titles of their Books
I probably should not make a Hub so personal, but I truly thought John Gray was the author/screenwriter of a Sam Peckinpah film that bears the same name of one of Gray's books, Straw Dogs. It is a violent film with the kind of violence that exceeded expectations in the early-1970s. But no, this is just the predicament of common names. No doubt there was somebody named William Shakespeare once who could not get a beer in a tavern without having to deny having written for the Globe. Or, maybe he was also a writer, only not the same one, as is the case at hand. Still, Gray already made a big name for himself with Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, which practically everyone feels they fully understand, without having read a single page. He is called, on Wikipedia, a relationship author. Still, he can, like anyone, break free from an artificial verbal noose. He does so in the idea of a need in human beings (perhaps dogs, too) for silence. When this became clear to me, I began to think of the book in the same vein as Anthony Storr's Solitude, A Return to the Self. Unlike the latter, Gray does not get to the topic of silence until well into the book.
I liked both books. Each does the thinking for you, at least initially. Then, upon reflection, the reader takes over. There are writers, for instance, included in The Silence of Animals, who I deliberately avoid. I am aware of them only because I went to school longer than average. I developed a dislike for J.G. Ballard based on only one book of non-fiction. Then, later, I realized several novels he wrote had been turned into interesting movies. I was merely ignorant. Nevertheless, I never have any argument with Borges, whose short stories are probably the object of envy of every writer. What a literary riff! One author succeeds another. There follows mention of writers, and movies as well, with which I had no familiarity, until silence finally becomes the undisputed main subject. Against the grain of academia, as much of it as I can remember from decades ago, Gray takes issue with the notion that equates language with consciousness. Thus, theoretically, there can be no real silence, not for the human soul, if words cannot be shut off with a mental spigot.
Also, Not Lots to Say Aloud
I think Gray is right that "for humans silence is an escape from inner commotion." I also think he is right in distinguishing silence in humans from that of animals. While I am quoting Gray, Gray is also quoting Max Picard, a theologian I have never heard of, who wrote "The World of Silence". I have for a time now sporadically contemplated the non-verbal. It is difficult if not impossible to get away from words spoken, written, heard, or thought. A head full of words swarming about like stinging bees, or birds with piercing beaks, is not silence. Gray cannot quit quoting from beginning to end, a gift to scholarship, for anyone wanting to dig further, but to me, silence has to find ways around books, too. They are loaded with words. For anyone wanting to empty himself or herself of words, in order to experience pure silence, apart from a strenuous hike to a distant realm, which does not always accomplish the task either, books, too, must be abandoned along the way.
I respect the author's erudition and formal structure, graduating from one writer to another, eventually putting the subject of silence into the foreground. I would not want to be his reviewer, however, since book reviews are not my forté, nor would I want to go medieval on any author, simply because "it's my job". It is just that I think silence as an authorial choice deserves much more analysis. There is also the fact that silence might be, in the sense in which I envision it, a matter only an experienced Buddhist could achieve. Nevertheless, I wonder if the non-verbal were not accessible, since genetically, homo sapiens must have evolved from a word-less ancestor. I know how laughable it is to imagine chimpanzees and gibbons as great-grand-parents. But apparently Darwin did not actually have these contemporary primates in mind when he devised his controversial thesis. If only for the sake of argument, however, would there not be a trace of non-verbal residue in our mutual, ageless DNA?
The Detached Mind
Let us assume that John Gray does not have an enormous staff of researchers, ghost writers, and ready access to the rarest archives. That is to say, he has read the books he references, all of which are available, as well as the quotes he makes use of. He is neither a robot nor a computer. It may seem funny, but to me, I am actually trying to say something. We are losing certain kinds of writers and their "hand"-crafted minds. Does he bring forth revelations about the topic of silence that techies and nerds could never have acquired? I think so. I cannot prove it. But my answer is yes. The new satyr, half man (or woman), half motherboard, is next in line. It will be the more decisive generation. The world has nearly always moved forward, except as imagined in the Planet of the Apes. The antiquated self-reflective intellect will, I predict, reach extinction, like the Neanderthal, whose reputation still suffers from uneducated misunderstandings. Oh well. For an afterword, a paragraph containing a single thought will have to suffice.