Monday, 28 August 2017

Words are a Sawn Off Shotgun

I only really like music when I like the lyrics, but I only really like lyrics when they're confusing. I remember immediately falling in love with Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man, which is a sort of paean to being an obscurantist arsehole who never gets to the point. My favourite stanza is this:

Now, you see this one-eyed midget shouting the word "Now"
And you say, "For what reason?" and he says, "How"
And you say, "What does this mean?" and he screams back, "You're a cow!
Give me some milk or else go home"
And you know something's happening but you don't know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

For a good while I loved it because of how hilariously absurd and not even pretending to be about anything it was being. But then, one day, being bored in maths class and trying to write the lyrics from memory, it suddenly occurred to me that these lines totally did have a quite clear meaning. A dude who is short and half-blind and useless and pathetic is insisting on something. Mr. Jones demands a proper, coherent conversation, but pathetic-useless-face (hi, that's me) says fuck explanations, how do we get this done? What Mr. Jones neglects to consider is that he's a cow, and either he can contribute his milk to what is going on here or he is getting in the way.

Words can do pretty cool stuff sometimes, but not so much when they're being used to explain things. Explaining things means reducing them to something less than they are, and when you do that to a person, which happens a lot, you dehumanise them. But even in less dramatic circumstances, they make things stuffy and overbearing and quite a bit hostile. When you walk into a room with a pencil in your hand, you're not being open to the experience, hoping to encourage people to be more themselves, but have effectively appointed yourself micro-manager, assuming you'll be able to stifle the room into higher efficiency, but you are wrong.

In regular circumstances, you do not expect a sequence like "you say what does this mean and he screams back you're a cow! Give me some milk or else go home" to make sense. In regular circumstances you pare your talk down, using words to cut people's limbs off. The regular-circumstancey prototype of word-using is to say "What are you doing? That's weird." And all this leaves you very little manoeuvering space, in between people's reductions, to actually say or do something real. But when you actually manage to, there is never actually anything to explain. And anyway that's what I think this song is about:

Just as you take my hand
Just as you write my number down
Just as the drinks arrive
Just as they play your favorite song
As your blather disappears
No longer wound up like a spring
Before you’ve had too much
Come back in focus again

The walls are bending shape
You got a cheshire cat grin
All blurring into one
This place is on a mission

Before the night owl
Before the animal noises
Closed circuit cameras
Before you're comatose

Before you run away from me
Before you’re lost between the notes
The beat goes round and round
The beat goes round and round

I never really got there
I just pretended that I had
Words are blunt instruments
Words are a sawn off shotgun

Come on and let it out
Come on and let it out
Come on and let it out
Come on and let it out

Before you run away from me
Before you're lost between the notes
Just as you take the mic
Just as you dance, dance, dance

Jigsaw falling into place
There is nothing to explain
You eye each other as you pass
She looks back, you look back
Not just once
Not just twice
Wish away your nightmare
Wish away the nightmare
You got the light you can feel it on your back
[A light,] you can feel it on your back
Your jigsaw falling into place

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Statement of Identity

I'm not exactly the most ambivalent of religion-losers, but I'm still a little envious specifically of that previous life's reality of broadcasting through a simple skull-cap a fairly comprehensive set of values that I could feel basically represented me well. I have also, in previous years, been carrying around this strange and possibly not entirely rational but similar jealousy of homosexuals, for their matter-of-fact ability (when not ensconced in furniture) of declaring their deviation from cultural expectation by the use of a simple word.

It's a funny sort of equivalence, because gays do not actually espouse a homosexual set of values, and presumably their homosexual-ness does not play a part in pursuing their own spiritual fulfillment, but I don't think the comparison is completely unfounded. Until relatively recently in Western history, both homosexuality and Jewishness had been treated essentially as character-flaws and products of bad decisions, and in both cases this attitude seems to have been alleviated by a conviction that these conditions are in-born and immutable, hinging less upon what you actually do than on your internal make-up. More significantly, at present they possess in common the theoretical possibility of blending in, eliminating all external signs of difference, and a defiant and to me inspiring unwillingness to do so.

Usually a passive one, though. Even the skull-capping Jews will not generally proactively broadcast and advocate their own specific manifestations of identity unless they're being annoying, and gays will pretty much point blank not do so unless they're William Burroughs. But perhaps they don't need to, because in spite of everything they a pretty extensive and well-known tradition of being very specific minorities behind them.

Spoiled wankers. Some people don't have that privilege. I can see now that this would have to be longer than I am inclined to make it in order to be done properly, so I'll make do with saying that in my opinion what inspires believing Jews to express their Jewishness what inspires same-sex attractees to express their homosexuality are equally and complementarily important motives, and the reason I am writing all this is that I wanted to sit down and write my updated version of both complements - what I find spiritually meaningful and what I think in the end makes me and everybody what we are.

Serious preoccupation with meaningfulness, whether in religion or literature or maligned science, seems to revolve uneasily around two often contradictory trajectories: morality and anchoring values on the one hand, and freedom and transcendence on the other. My own approach, regarding the former, has become the conviction that the only thing truly justifying and compelling an attitude of high seriousness and disciplined commitment even when we really really don't feel like it is the advocacy and promotion and acknowledgement of the feelings of sadness and fear, i.e., emotional distress. Both our own and those of others, especially those who have the invisibility of theirs to us enforced or encouraged. I think the legitimacy of sadness and fear is important because when allowed to just be emotions they become the basis for real empathy and acknowledgement of our own and others' humanity, and thus the ultimate base of anything conceivably important, and because when suppressed they become wrecking balls, blind and out of control and explosive.

And the thing these wrecking balls wreck, in the insistence as important and urgent and rigid on anything besides people's sad and frightened and vulnerable humanity, is stuff like homosexuals' ability to just have sex with people of the same sex and get on with it, for one, but much more besides. Freedom and transcendence. Part of the reason Burroughs has blown my mind so much is that he is the first person I have seen insist on the specific transcendence of unimpeded homosexual sensuality (or, in his own memorable formulation, "we see God through our assholes in the flashbulb of orgasm"), but maybe I'll let that go because neither homosexuality nor sensuality are the point here.

The point, or the claim, is that once you stop pointlessly getting into people's (or your own) shit, not only do you prevent needless suffering, but you enable a transcendent spiritual exultation of a kind whose existence Western culture seems to have already forgotten about or drastically misinterpreted. When your mind is clear, it's not simply nice because there's an absence of unpleasant noise, but there is room for actual life to actually begin - for the truly enthralling, dreamlike, trance-like, story-like, joke-like, madness-like developments in the face of which it is impossible to continue asking "Why did I even bother getting out of bed this morning?" When you reach this freedom, when you begin to experience this transcendence of the bullshitty and meaningless, you don't need answers because you no longer need the questions. Because you have actual engagement with the world.

So that's me. Hi.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Extraverting China-wards

"Actually he lives in a mythological world, where men, animals, locomotives, houses, rivers, and mountains appear either as benevolent deities or as malevolent demons..."  --  Carl Jung, on the introverted sensation type.
"Rows of houses, all bearing down on me. I can feel their blue hands touching me. All these things into position, all this things will one day swallow whole..."  --  Radiohead, on Street Spirit. 

Eating dinner in Sichuan is an interesting experience. I almost invariably leave these meals sweating profusely, exhausted, and feeling a little bit violated. Sometimes, like tonight, I find it exhilarating and really enjoy it. Sometimes I don't.

In that respect, it's a lot like the Chinese experience in general so far. I can't make the same excuses as on my last try here 4 years ago, about the smogginess, and hostility or ridicule, or general stressed-out attitude or crowdedness. Chengdu kicks arse. But there's just so goddamn much of it. It's constantly, consistently, unavoidably and seemingly inherently overwhelming. A neverending flood of new information, that probably isn't actually either deities or demons, but it's constantly on the attack.

To backtrack (hopefully) briefly, I have become very excited about Jung's conception of personality and life in general. Basically, if I may summarise the expertise gained by reading two or three whole papers/speeches of his, there's our insides, containing our personalities and the dreamscapey collective unconscious, and there's our outside, containing what we generally call life - society and its conventions and institutions. Introverts can pass breezily through surreal associations and meaningless aesthetics and emotionality but get into a panic when other people and mainstream society and culture pop up - extraverts are the other way round. It's a bad system because being good at one is almost meaningless when you're completely stupid at the other, but trying to improve the one you suck at is a central part of growing as a person, as I understand it.

Enter China. I have a pet peeve about China, which actually seems to grow in its irritatingness as time goes by. It is when anybody tries to say anything about it at all. A major part of China's continuing appeal to me is its sheer uncategorizableness. Its collapsing of our everythings. It's stupid enough to try to generalize about a normal-sized nation or religion or economy or culture or governmental infrastructure; at least you have a sort of vague idea of the object of whatever nonsense you're spouting. China's just too big and moves too fast for there to even seem to be anything to be talking about in the first place. You need to respect it as not being what it isn't.

So I am really perfectly happy to avoid prediction and generalization and just consider China as a setting and language within which to try and keep up if we must and to try and retrospectively understand and learn; as is, in fact, the only suitable way to approach basically anything ever - but in China it's more glaring. But I cannot seem to be happy doing this with my actual boring, privileged, sheltered student life here.

I constantly get lost. Among roads, among words, among foods, among people, among bureaucracies. The regular, decidedly undramatic stuff. And everything invariably ends up okay, especially here, and even if you have been a complete idiot, but everything also remains invariably unpredictable. Today I learned that the four tones I've been struggling so much with in Standard Chinese are actually spoken in this region in four entirely different ways, basically being reshuffled just to confuse me. I think it's a life lesson.

There are two ways to react to being lost in the outside world. Two roads diverging in a yellow wood, if you will. The well-travelled, decidedly introverted one, would be to panic, because oh no it's going to be revealed to the world what an impostor I am and how truly and profoundly I suck at this. I guess the extraverted way would be to just take it in stride with no hesitation, so let's instead call it the introverted-balancing way - would remember that it only matters that you're lost if you're trying to get somewhere, and even then only if you're supposed to be there on time, and even then only if your attendance levels are reaching perilous levels, and they're really quite generous with those allowances.

Today, for example, in German class, this Iranian dude tells me (this is already a good story, how cool is my life?) that he's actually fluent in German and taking this for the easy credit, but it's useful to actually learn about the differences between the definite articles, because he'd always just use "das" for everything. My mind is still reeling a little bit from that one - how can you think of yourself as fluent in a language when you don't have its articles under control? And it reels nevertheless when I easily respond to myself that articles are fucking stupid and almost entirely useless even without gender sometimes-differentiation. I have taught enough English to know that this is the only way to become fluent - to just not give a shit about doing things wrong, but it continues to come as a surprise to me that it's actually done and actually works.

So today I'm being made to move dorms because of course so lemme try to take that as an opportunity to officially pronounce myself China's bitch and see what it plans to do with me.

Friday, 3 June 2016

The Impulse/Mind/Body/Spirit Quadralism, Part 1

I've written before, in case you have dared to not religiously follow and memorise my writings, about the reasons to prioritise the body over the mind, or rather to see the better angels of the mind's nature as included within a more robust and coherent conception of the importance of the body. This invites further pontification.

Impulse to Mind; From Chimpanzees to Confucians:

A world prioritising impulse would have fairly obvious drawbacks. If I were doing this properly I'd probably quote Thomas Hobbes extensively, but since I haven't actually read him and am not actually going to do so just for the purposes of this post, we may make do with his famous formula that the consequent perpetual explosion of violence would render people's live "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Interestingly, this is not an argument more relevant to humans than to chimpanzees - just one that humans are in a better position to do something about.

If Leviathan were written today it would doubtless draw more attention to the situation of women in such circumstances, which perhaps was not sufficiently improved in 17th century England for this to provide a strong enough arguing point. More on that later (stay tuned!). The fact is that life would probably have been equally unpleasant to children and men who were physically smaller or weaker than average. There would also be significant problems with managing food, with people becoming obese in the unlikely event of its surplus or malnourished because of bad management both in consuming and producing food. Diseases would really suck. If access to any psychoactive drugs were around we would be even more comprehensively fucked. Which is to say, our bodies would suffer.

Impulse is not a good policy. It is fortunate that we developed a voice box and words and the ability to form our lives around ideas. Hobbes is correct in thinking this state of affairs worse even than authoritatian rule, but as Westerners we seem to have an almost instinctive aversion to and suspicion of the implications.

But Hobbes is basically a curio. More significant to world history was the world-view of Confucius, which, like Hobbes', curiously enough, was preached during a time of devastating civil war. Confucius doesn't speak of a social contract, but he does have what to me at least is a very strange intense conservatism without God, and ideological essentially without values except for the importance of ideologicalness.

It is true I am probably doing a great disservice here to the great variety and complexity of thousands of years of Confucianism, but I'm probably selling the chimpanzees even shorter, so bear with me. My point is that Confucianism is about definitions, about words, about ritual. The idea is to fight impulses by fighting nature, in an attempt to reprogram mankind into obedient virtuousness. Their hearts were probably in the right place, and the social order they brought about was probably better than endless war, but it was still pretty nasty in its own ways.

I am singling the Confucians out because it's a doctrine I find particularly annoying as well as unusually transparent in its subjugation to words and ritual as sacred. But I think this process of prioritisation of mind over impulse could probably be tracked down to basically the first time we used words to tell somebody to shut up or be ashamed or themselves. Probably it began intensifying when we started living in sedantary agricultural communities, when we became religious, when we invented nation-states, etc.

Next installment, I further explain why words are for Nazis!

Wednesday, 18 May 2016


"A man seeking revenge does not go so far as to smash the sword of his enemy; a man, no matter how hot-tempered, does not rail at the tile that happens to fall on him. To know that all things in the world are equal and the same--this is the only way to eliminate the chaos of attack and battle and the harshness of punishment and execution!" 
-- Chuang Tzu


I am going through a spiritual re-awakening of sorts. Buddhist-Daoist type thing. A serious development, I think. Considering veganism and such.

I mention this as background to how I'm trying to confront the embarrassment inherent to taking this kind of thing very very seriously, the same way I would be kept up at night with the urgency of needing to know with Winston Smith what does it all mean in 1984 as if this wasn't just some thing written by some guy.

Anyway, This odd quote comes at the heels of an even stranger paragraph claiming that drunk people are less susceptible to physical injury simply because they are less aware of what is going on ("because his spirit is whole").

It's a sort of appeal to indifference, or to acceptance, I suppose. to a not-getting-hung-up-on-on-things type thing. Because things are just things, including us.

A probably necessary background is that Chuang Tzu is writing while everybody's killing everybody in a huge civil war that, this being China, is probably more comparable to a world war. The chaos of attack and battle and the harshness of punishment and execution are not just metaphors - they are very real and very ridiculous nonsense.

But still, there's an apparent logical contradiction here. If all things in the world were equal and the same, wouldn't that mean that it would make sense to get angry with bad people's swords or with flying tiles? Isn't the whole point that we should distinguish between what is deliberate and planned and avoidable and what is simply bad luck?

I think the answer to this can be approached by remembering that, opaque stylistics and gleeful logical incoherence notwithstanding, Daoism is very clearly and very unequivocally about not stressing out. It's not really "profound" - it's sort of precisely, and often satirically, the opposite.

It's about the attribution of undue significance, I think, Everything happens because of a cause, but not necessarily because of a reason. A tile falls on you because of gravity, a sword injures you because there's an arsehole at the other side of it, and shit in general happens because the climatic conditions of the world involve a perpetual rain of shit.

So buy an umbrella. But stop screaming at the sky because all that does is create an opening for turds to fly in through.

The more spiritualistic wishy-washy implications are that we happen because of causes. We are things that come into being because of things and will one day die because of things. This is not to suggest that there isn't anything beyond thinginess, but it is to suggest that it should only be looked for in what isn't things or thing-based.

The non-thing beyond things, in this metaphor, would be the incompetent roof design, or the sword-brandishing dude, or perhaps his troubled childhood. What would they represent, being not-things?

Why, the absence of the Dao! A workman working with the Dao would build a proper roof. A society and culture operating through the Dao would avoid needless violence and enmity. Working with the Dao addresses what is immediately relevant and disregards points of honour, convention, or stress in general. The avoidance of a master plan, a grand narrative or any kind or reductive urgency, so goes the idea, would allow us to freely, happily and acceptingly live, and, possibly, to not freak out so much about one day having to die.

Because maybe this non-thing is not just the absence of thinginess, but something beyond it. But we'll leave that for next time. Maybe.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Bodies and Words

Continuing in the spirit of over-ambitiousness, I want to try and present a basic ethical framework - whose philosophical soundness is of supreme indifference to me.

The problem, fundamentally, with life, is culture. What Marxists would call the superstructure; what psychoanalysts would call the super-ego; what semioticians would call a sign system; what Daoists would call the dao of society; what sociologists would call socialisation; what I would just call the institution of words.

Words ruin everything. They promote and manifest mystification and reductionism even as they are marshalled to combat them. They have a mysterious fetishistic power that constantly pushes them beyond their instrumental use into seeming like the point of everything, but they're not. Words just suck.

Yes I am using words now, and yes in my own way I am even trying to write well in the assumption that felicitous exploitation of words has an aesthetic or stylistic and not merely an instrumental or substantive value, but the important distinction, I think, is that I aim for the words to belong to me rather than for myself to belong to the words.

But who is this "myself" that is to be considered more important than words? Can you have an identity that is not fundamentally mediated and compromised by verbal constructions?

This line of questioning is often presented as profound and paradoxical, but I think the answer is fairly simple. I am my body, and everything that lives and comes from within it. Crucially, this includes emotions, which are considerably influenced by outside, cultural, normative, ideological wordy factors, but are not created by them.

I think this is the basic oversight of contemporary, "postmodern" critical social and moral thinking. It's very preoccupied with how so much is created by discourse, that it neglects the fact that humans have elements that pre-exist culture, and often transcend or overpower it. We're so used of being afraid of this phenomenon - the reversion to barbarian physicality and bodiness - that we neglect to consider its potential to re-ground us in life as something real - primal, visceral and non-video-gamey.

A few months ago I had a really bad and really intense weed trip (yes, I didn't know that was a thing either), set off by the sensation of being inside a computer game, that then proceeded to dramatically malfunction. I think this is what the prioritisation of words does to us. They create an enormously elaborate house of cards, which is at the same time an intricate network of rules - like (shitty) programming code that we have to live in. There's stuff we are supposed to do and to be, with an implicit danger that if we don't do and be it successfully enough, the whole edifice will crumble, and we'll become chimpanzees again. We maintain our superiority and our lives' stability by conceding to the realm of words, well - basically anything it wants.

Progressing in a career is like progressing in a computer game. So is accumulating sexual conquests, or scoring marriages, alternatively. Almost everything we do is a proof that we deserve our privileged standing in the animal kingdom or our human geographical or class or gender or whatever position. Almost everything is an attempt to fend off the "GAME OVER" legend from appearing in the middle of our screen, only with no returning to the last saved point or even being able to restart. Whether it's explicitly a fear of death or only implicitly with the danger of losing cultural prestige and legitimacy, the message we're terrified of hearing is "Nice try, but you don't make the cut."

Because the institution of words guarantees inclusion in exclusive members' clubs. Immediately in the club of humans, more remotely (sometimes, as per fortune's favours) in the club of middle-classness or Westernness or maleness or sanity or whatnot, and ultimately in the distant promise of "successful" humanness - whether it's the millionaire or the player or the scholar or the person who's made it to heaven. And, once more, all of these clubs actually suck.

Still, I do think we have a better time of it than chimpanzees, even with our 40-hour work weeks and stress and bullshit. And, doubtlessly, we do have need of culture and words to maintain an existence where we have ready access to food and are not generally in danger of having our heads bashed in. But, as already implied by this, all of these words and culture ought to be there for the sake of our bodies' needs which would otherwise be neglected, not the other way round.

Other things our bodies need, other than food and not being mutilated, are things like love, respect, moral integrity, spiritual engagement and self-expression. Food that tastes good rather than just sustains us - even dogs can tell the difference between tasty food and bad, it's not a question of culture. There are a whole bunch of bodies in the world, and all of the people who live in them need these bodies taken care of. This does not necessarily entail the elimination of pain, discomfort or anxiety, but it does necessitate that we do not accept wholesale misery, repression or even boredom as culturally or ideologically justified or required. Things can only be bodily justified.

Bodies rule, words drool.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

History, Philosophy, and Lyric

How's that for an overblown title?

So. Restlessness and indecision at my undergrad studies together with a lifelong urgent predisposition towards hearing stories and a suspicion towards anything pompously declaring itself "culture" have contributed to a preoccupation with a whole big bunch of stuff that I and I think pretty much everybody else would consider very important. But we're generally discouraged from having actual opinions about these things because they'd be considered "superficial". For my part, I think claiming expertise on fundamental cultural institutions is such an inherently stupid prospect, no matter what your level of education, that an impressionistic rendering is probably all anyone should ever aim for in the first place.

Anyway. the Ancient Greek word "historia", if wikipedia is to be believed, meant "inquiry", or "witness". Latin added the meaning of narrative, or story, as well as of specific investigation of past events. In Middle English the word was still used to describe both "past events" and narrative in general - as it still does in most other European languages. I would suggest that this duality, mysteriously cleaned out of contemporary English, is not accidental. Turning the past into a story and projecting a made-up story into the past are acts that require a very similar exercise of the imagination.

The first dude to write what we consider a history rather than just boring old chronologies or chronicles is Herodotus with his Histories of 440 BCE. This is because he made it investigative and narrativey (I do not think it would be a stretch to assume that the Latin meaning of "history" as "story" follows the example of his book), and also because we're a bunch of Eurocentric arseholes who won't accept the Zuo Zhuan as written before it. Anyhow, it was the beginning of Western historiography before it had a new beginning in 19th century Germany with "scientific" history that has since been basically discredited as nationalistic self-aggrandisement government-toadying but is still mysteriously revered.

Thing is, even without being scientific, "history" commands an authoritative cultural force just by the fact that it puts things in narrative form, because narrative is how we tell ourselves what things are and what they mean, and the only way any large collection of items gains coherence. The problem is, when we tell them unscientifically we can very easily end up with meanings that are completely bullshit.

The thing that makes things (that is, the "history" of things) scientific is called "philosophy", or at least used to be called that before it began being called "science" and to acquire an almost religious significance as super-mega-total-truth. I'll forego at least some of the obnoxious etymological overreaching and just start with the fact that until the 19th century, the Western way of studying nature was basically divided between "natural history" and "natural philosophy". I swear I'm going somewhere with this.

This might be a good place to point out that my erudite posturing here is based on reading exactly one book (or the relevant section of it, actually) about the history of science, but we'll assume that it and whatever else I've happened upon on this subject have not been lying. "Natural history" is more or less what it sounds and what the museums utilising its name still do: A catalogue of natural phenomena, based on systematic observation as opposed to experimentation - as is our contemporary discipline of "history". Also like it, it can be said to be aiming at a master narrative - a description of what nature is, and ultimately the necessary repository of its basic meaning before we can try to say anything about nature's significance.

But what nature is doesn't really seem to interest scientists all that much anymore. The discipline that won the day was "natural philosophy", which was interested in what nature does and how and why, and it got renamed into "science" (Latin scientia of "knowledge", "expertise"), just in case we might get confused and think there's anything else worthy of or susceptible to knowing.

The crazy thing is, "science" was such a wildly successful cultural institution, that it almost wholly subsumed "history" into it - not just natural history, but human history as well, and sometimes, it seems, even just regular made-up story history. Any self-respecting author since I frankly have no idea when - but definitely as in contrast to ancient Greek and Chinese times - walks and talks with an intellectual aura, one borrowed from scientists and philosophers. Nobody's "just" telling stories - they're investigating and exposing truths and bestowing their sagacity upon us. Except when they're writing best-sellers, I guess, but I'm trying to talk here about earnestly attempted, artistically ambitious stories.

Which brings us to lyric! Which is a concept I have become familiar with in this capacity only at some point this month. Apparently, according to specific paragraphs I would like to quote from an interesting little book that I have unfortunately returned to the library too early, literary critics like to distinguish between the "narrative" and "lyric" mode in writing. This corresponds the most easily to the distinction between prose and poetry, but also, I think, more generally between what we might call the historical tendency in stories, and what I will still call their lyrical tendency even though I have not yet explained what the word means in this context.

First things first - Lyrics are totally songs. They were supposed to be accompanied by lyres. Another important characteristic of lyric, which I think can still be observed fairly conspicuously in a lot of contemporary pop music, is that its poetry is introverted, individualistic, and focused on emotion and subversion, both of ideology and of language. Similes and metaphors and general linguistic innovation can be said, in this context, to subtly unsettle the regular discursive order in the name of idiosyncratic and inherently rebellious personal authenticity. Yes, like Kurt Cobain.

The place where I feel (hope?) that I'm going with this whole narrative of institutional history, is the claim that modern literature - understood as the general modern conception of story-telling and the significance and function of narrative to life - has integrated all three institutions of history, philosophy and lyric, and that this is an essential part of the spiritual promise of the last few centuries of human history, even if it has been left very largely unfulfilled. I am attempting to proclaim it my new religion, because I believe in the modern conception of storytelling, and feel that, say, finishing Mad Men this week was a supreme spiritual experience probably not available to the most fervently devout monk a thousand years ago in wherever.

I am reading Don Quixote these days - a book literary historians seem more or less in consensus about declaring the first modern novel and possibly the novelistic declaration of modernity. I know very near next to nothing about the literary period, but it seems as good a place as any to anchor these reflections.

I will try to limit myself to one anecdote. The first "part" of Don Quixote is broken off mid-battle, because that's where the manuscript the narrator had ends, and the second part begins with his attempts to track down another version of Don Quixote's "history" to translate. The footnotes tell me this is a common literary conceit of the period - to have the fictional work pretend to be a translation of a history jotted down in a foreign language by a wise man accompanying the protagonist. The historicalness of the story seems very far from accidental, and neither do its associations of intellectualism and scholarly precision. The thing is, for Cervantes this is all decidedly jokey, and lyrical precisely in the highlighting of its prosaicness.

I may be waxing a little bit too lyrical myself there, but my point is that the modern promise - the modern storytelling attitude, which can be seen anywhere from Victor Hugo and Robert Burns to Louis C.K, and Neil Young - takes the grand narratives we all live in, deflates the philosophy and scientism and sanctimony involved, and reformulates them in lyrical, subversive, emotion-based individualist storytelling. It says "A truly good story is neither pompous, empty propaganda nor nihilistic, commercialised self-serving noise, but a stubbornly independent and coherent narrative that maintains its integrity". And the same might be said, by extension, of a truly good life.