Archive for May, 2011
This is probably a little more timely than I really intend it be, this being the rapture and all, but I want to talk about faith. We have a culture where faith is associated with religion; it’s a two-for-one sale. Atheists don’t have faith. Theists do. And then there’s the murky middle, the “spiritual but not religious” masses who don’t really buy the whole religion thing but want to keep one foot in the door of higher meaning.
This post is for the people in the room who want to buy only half of the package deal.
People are delicate, pathetic things. A strong wind, an errant car, or even a rogue microorganisms can wipe us out like a foot crushing an ant, and those lucky enough to survive external threats to their existence eventually fall apart from the inside out. We all stand next to complete disolution, and for the most part just try to distract ourselves until we get so senile that we die without worrying about it too much.
From time to time, events force us to confront the fact we live in a world outside our control, that we are small and it is big. Sometimes a new episode of Jersey Shore isn’t enough to distract us. At those times, when we confront this face on, the two reactions are horror or awe: raw, nihilistic despair that we live in a meaningless world where absolutely everything we care about and work towards will die, or a heightened sense of aliveness and appreciation of the preciousness of each ounce of our limited span.
Let’s call the quality that allows awe and dispels horror “faith.” It is the feeling that the universe will meet us halfway; that though our existence is pathetic, we have our small part to play and if we play it well there is joy for us in it. Or in other words, that we live in a universe that we can look at and say, “this is good”, even as we watch kids die in car accidents and genocide in Africa and our smarmy coworkers get promoted ahead of us.
I think true faith is something experienced, not believed. We all have lots of beliefs, most of which are bullshit. A belief is just a theory that we haven’t gotten around to disproving yet. Staking our hope on a belief always leads to cognitive dissonance, because the human mind seeks truth and always knows at a deep level when we’re clinging to something that we hope is true but have no evidence for. Experience, on the other hand, is direct perception; you don’t believe that you’re feeling happy, you know it, because that’s what happy is.
Religion can breed true faith by calling attention to the abyss and providing community support in facing it courageously. But it also breeds a lot of false faith, by propagating hearsay claims: we live in a good universe because there is a God out there who will reward or punish us. These consquences are hearsay because, in most versions of the story, you have to be dead first before you get to experience the fun firsthand. Hearsay creates belief, but it can’t create experience. I think a lot of religious fanaticism is underlied by a deep insecurity, a subconscious acknowledgement of the foundational weakness of the position, where the response is to attack anyone who dares question our hopeful narrative. (I say “our” because everyone does this from time to time — we all have beliefs that we are fundamentalists about).
So I don’t think religious faith — the good kind — can be related to God as the provisioner of moral consequences. Rather, I think where belief in God and faith can overlap is when God is used as a metaphor for our perception of the universe. The faithful sees the universe as personal: love, not emptiness, underlies the cosmos; the abyss is illusionary and life has meaning.
But one metaphor can be discarded for another. You don’t have to believe any external fact about the world to experience the universe as fundamentally good. In fact, I would argue that dropping the talk of God can even make our perceptions of this clearer.
Unfortunately, the predominate discourse in our society is that science — generally viewed as the other option for understanding our reality — tells us that we live in an amoral universe. We’re just collections of elementary particles or vibrations of very tiny strings, evolved by natural processes into beings that, for various survival-driven reasons, display moral sentiments as the occasion warrants.
That’s almost right: science is in fact amoral. But science is amoral because the scientific method works on the world viewed from a third person, objective perspective; value judgments occur from a first person perspective. Science says nothing about the moral content of our existence; it doesn’t speak the language. I think a lot of people would say that it really comes down to us whether or not we see the universe as fundamentally good or bad, empty or meaningful. My personal opinion (which I’ll try to write about later) is that the nature of human consciousness itself makes life meaningful. Either way, though, the point is that experiencing the universe as fundamentally good is something that you can do regardless of what you believe re: metaphysics, Gods, spaghetti monsters, etc. So I’d like to reclaim faith as something that everyone can do, not just the (officially) faithful.
Imagine that you’re in a martial arts showdown against a practioner of some obscure Eastern training. Your opponent has been preparing all his life for this moment, honing his body and mind into animal-like grace. You’re just an average office-rat; maybe you go to the gym a few times a week. You are now in a jungle pagoda battling for your life.
Now, imagine time slows down. It takes a subjective minute for each of your punches to connect… it’s like the air became molasses. You have as much time as you need to study your opponent’s body position, feel the balance of your weight, correct your motion, and prepare your mind for impact. Suddenly, you’re not panicking anymore; the fear and adrenaline are out of the picture and you weigh your options like a chess player.
Let’s assume your opponent feels time normally. Let’s also give you the benefit of the doubt re: your athleticism; you can move, you can hit harder than a five year old. Now it’s your opponent who is in trouble. With an infinity to study each step, you react as though possessed with uncanny intuition. It’s Mr. Smith fighting Neo in the Matrix; Mr. Smith is screwed.
Writing is about inspiration; editing is about technique. The former seems mysterious and passionate whereas the latter is coldly analytical. An editor sees a text as a series of decisions, and the most skilled editor is the one who can articulate most precisely the pros and cons of each, whether that’s the placement of a comma, the grammar of a sentence, the choice of a word or a particular metaphor, or the omission or inclusion of a passage. There’s no magic to it; just refinement, adjustment, and frequent reference to Strunk and White.
There are many great editors who are not great writers. You cannot write the great American novel by writing a shitty American novel and then revising it until it is perfect. You can’t do that because perfect is optimization within constraints, whereas great is breaking through constraints to create new landmass out of thin air. Two entirely different goals, dictating entirely different exertions.
Nevertheless, different as they are, the two practices are intimately connected. You can imagine great writing as a great editor fighting the kung fu master in slow motion. With a subjective infinity to make each editorial decision, the objective appearance is a fluid stream of creation, giving the impression of mystery and magic. From the view of the time-slowed individual, though, it’s just a series of choices — which metaphor, what sequencing, which word — the same choices that editors critique and revisit after the fact.
If writing and editing involve the same decisions, that raises a puzzle. In a real fight you can’t slow time, but in writing, it does seem as if time is in fact frozen: at least, your word processor isn’t about to pick itself up and run. So why can’t you substitute editorial prowess and a lot of patience for great writing’s elusive special stuff?
The missing piece of the analogy is the opponent. You’re back in your jungle pagoda; time is frozen; but this time, you’re by yourself. Now an observer walking by doesn’t see a martial arts expert — if you try to do fancy kung fu footwork, you’ll just look stupid. It was your opponent who forced your reaction; raw necessity of survival drew the lines of efficiency that lent your movements grace. Absent something to react to, the lines aren’t there.
Call the thing that writers react to inspiration: a psychological or maybe spiritual necessity to express. Inspiration waxes and wanes, and as it flows one must react by choosing a vessel to fill with it. Nothing a human being can write in human language will ever fully do justice to the original urge. But you can do better or worse. Drops of intuition will always escape and spatter on the ground, but you can hold up a sieve, or you can hold up a cup, or you can hold up a jug. Time does not freeze for writers — you must make decisions, big decisions, about what form to choose, and after the fact you can correct certain choices but only up to a point — beyond that point you need a fresh stream of inspiration or else you will kill what you’re working on.
So like a real martial artist, a writer needs to learn to practice making decisions under pressure until good choices become intuitive rather than conscious. Editing ability helps with that, because the better you can critique your work, the less error your practice will introduce into your technique. It’s doing katas in front of a clear mirror instead of a cloudy one. But recognition of good is still completely seperate from ability to do.
The joy in this thought is that practicing is never-ending. It is a great thing to feel the surge of inspiration, frantically pour it onto paper, and even as you write, feel the inadequacy of your technique to do your impulse justice. That’s because you can never, no matter how good you are, capture all of an inspiration. Creative choices are discrete, whereas inspiration is continuous. Inadequacy and imperfection are in the very nature of life itself, and life’s blessing is that, being imperfect, there is always joy in getting better. My technique is a clumsy vessel — I feel how weak it is, how insubstantial my imagery, how heavy-handed my weaving of point and story, and that’s fine, the natural order of things. Water will always splash from my cup, and the splashing is good. And sometimes the cupping is pretty good too.