Let Other Pens Dwell on Guilt and Misery

This is the fourth and final post having to do with Frank Palmer’s book Literature and Moral Understanding: A Philosophical Essay on Ethics, Aesthetics, Education, and Culture (1992, Oxford University Press). You should start at the beginning.

Welcome to our home.

I went into architecture because I wanted to take care of people. I later realized that wasn’t the profession’s goal, but it’s always been mine. Let the other designers play their intellectual games, challenge our expectations, decenter our understandings, throw our easy recognition into question. I wanted to create places where people could be comfortable, and where they could become even more generous and welcoming than they imagined themselves capable of being.

One of the things that Nora and I love most about our home is that other people feel comfortable here. It’s almost impossible to get people out of the kitchen and dining room, unless we started on the patio and the back yard, which is just as magnetic. People come for dinner, and discover without knowing how we got there that it’s eleven o’clock and we’re still talking. It’s a fine home for Nora and me and the cats on a daily basis, it allows us our rituals as partners and writers and cooks and diners, allows us to be independent when we need to be and together when we need to be. But it’s particularly good for hosting our friends, and for helping random guests become friends.

I mention this because of my morning’s reading of Palmer’s Literature and Moral Understanding, which has now done what good philosophy should do; it has let me apply its lessons to a question I’ve already carried. In Chapter 5 (“Readers and Spectators”), he begins with a long conversation about Jane Austen and her novel Mansfield Park, which he quite likes. But he offers one brief passage that took me out of his book and into my own understanding of my role as a writer of fiction:

As far as the world in the novel is concerned Jane Austen does not exist. Certainly Jane Austen has written the novel, but in responding to the world she has created we react to its occupants, and Jane Austen is not, and cannot be, one of its occupants any more than we can be. (106-7)

Let’s recap Palmer’s earlier assertion that we have two modes of discourse about a book, which he calls the internal discourse of World 1, the fictional world, and the external discourse of World 2, the actual world we live in every day. Both worlds are equally “real,” though not mutually interchangeable—the inhabitants of one cannot inhabit the other.

What I understood this morning is that, as a writer—a creator of World 1—I play the same role as the designer or builder of a home. I am not a member of the family who lives there, and cannot be. What I do is to facilitate the pleasures and the growth of that family, and to help them welcome friends to their table.

The family are the body of people who inhabit World 1, the world of the book. I want them to be not merely comfortable, but to be loved, to be successful, to discover strengths they weren’t sure they could muster (just as our home has helped me to exercise a generosity that hasn’t always been available to me). I bear the same responsibility to my characters that I always imagined I would bear to the residents of the homes I might design.

And what of the friends who visit? That would be the body of readers, unimaginable and ever changing, people invited and people who drop by. Palmer quotes a fellow philosopher, Rush Rhees, to say that “the artist does not work to satisfy an existing audience, but to create an audience through his work.” And how is that audience created? My goal, as a writer and as a designer, has been to allow the World 1 family and their home to be so engaging that people want to stop by. Nobody watches The Big Bang Theory for the plots; they watch because they find that Sheldon and Penny and Leonard and Amy are people they want to spend time with.

So that’s the underlying work I bring to the building of a story. I discover a character. I discover the other characters that surround him or her. And I work to help them be strong, to help them be proud, to help them learn that they can do great things with humble gifts. I build the home that I will never inhabit, not as a shrine to my own ingenuity, but as a gift to the family who will live within it, and to the unknowable guests who will stop by for a while.

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest. — Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

Game On!

This is the third of a few posts having to do with Frank Palmer’s book Literature and Moral Understanding: A Philosophical Essay on Ethics, Aesthetics, Education, and Culture (1992, Oxford University Press). You should start at the beginning.

As I said yesterday, the early work of Palmer’s book was the laying out of terms, rules, and opposing constructions. But with Chapter 4, “Moral Responses to Fictional Characters”… well, in the immortal words of Wayne Campbell, Game On!

The chapter begins with a recounting of the famous Radford/Weston debate of 1975. (Famous in some circles, anyway. It’s not as well known as the Ali-Frasier Thrilla in Manila of that same year, but it was a big deal at the Aristotelian Society.)

Colin Radford entered the ring first, to declare that our emotions about fiction are simply a category error, to which we humans are vulnerable because we’re just the kind of creatures that have emotions, even about things that we shouldn’t. Parker paraphrases Radford’s position thus: “…our emotional responses to fiction, brute and unavoidable though they are, rest upon a mistake.”

Michael Weston then took his place in the box, to declare that our emotional responses to fiction are not on behalf of the travails of the fictional characters, but rather of the literary work as a whole. Weston sees a work of fiction in ways analogous to a work of music, a composition by which we can be moved without an attachment to any particular component. He rejects emotional responses to characters by saying that we can’t actually interact with them, and that “fictional characters are never free to do other than they are portrayed as doing,” just as the notes of a concerto have to come in a predetermined array.

By this point, Palmer can take no more, vaulting the ropes himself to take on both opponents (albeit thirteen years later). In a sequence as finely scripted as a fight scene in which Jackie Chan singlehandedly dispatches a legion, Palmer walks calmly into the fray. He uses both Radford’s and Weston’s arguments against one another, and adds some fine moves of his own to leave them both gasping and bloodied on the mat.

Of course it would not be the Anna Karenina we know if her life had gone differently; but it would not be the Florence Nightingale we know if her life had gone differently. (95)

Oh, THAT left a mark!

But that’s just the highlight reel blow. The real work is to evoke Wittgenstein’s formulation that our attitude towards another person is ‘an attitude to a soul” (or, though he doesn’t refer to it here, what Martin Buber would call an I-Thou relation).

The application of this argument to fiction is that in so far as we are to regard fictional characters as doing things, as engaging in acts and actions, we cannot have a non-moral or non-human perspective on their actions. Our moral expectations are built into our very conception of what they are doing, e.g., when they tell lies, commit acts of cruelty, disregard bonds of friendship, mistreat their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, or when they are kind and generous, loyal and faithful, honest and true, self-sacrificing, brave, principled, or fair-minded. Whatever further significance we see in their actions, or however much we may enter into further debate about the nature and quality of their deeds and of their significance for the meaning of the literary work, our conception of a character as a human being has the mark of an ‘attitude to a soul’. (99)

The very fact that we see fictional characters’ actions not as neutral body-cam recordings of physical motion, but as bearing motivation and moral implication, means that we have entered into a specific, mutual relation with them. We grant them the emotional agency to determine both their actions and their intentions.

This is similar to the ways in which I can regard ‘real-world’ people I don’t know, whether historical (Gandhi and Stalin seem pretty different to me, though I never met either) or contemporary, as when we judge the character (a revealing word) of the political candidates from which we choose. We don’t know them, don’t interact with them. We merely hear and see what they do, and intuit their ‘character’ from those actions. On a day-to-day basis, Cory Booker is no more ‘real’ to me than Clark Kent; I grant them both reality because they both mean something to me, because I have an emotional resonance of a certain timbre and pitch when I see their actions. I have chosen to make them real, just as we can choose to deem some people other than human when it’s in our interest to mistreat them.

More tomorrow.

Groundskeeping and Framed Worlds

This is the second of a few posts having to do with Frank Palmer’s book Literature and Moral Understanding: A Philosophical Essay on Ethics, Aesthetics, Education, and Culture (1992, Oxford University Press). You should start at the beginning.

The second and third chapters of Palmer’s book represent the kind of groundskeeping that all academic books must do early on: defining terms, acknowledging the work of rivals, preparing the playing field to facilitate the daring maneuvers to come. It’s fascinating work if you can give it the time it deserves, deadly dull if you only came to watch the game. (And in that way, it’s just like the ritual of the poolroom I described a few days ago.)

One thing Palmer does to lay out the background is to assert that judgments only make sense in certain contexts. We say that a child is pretending to ride a horse, but we do not say that an actor is pretending to be a character. He uses the analogue of a person playing the role of a middle-forward in soccer: her actions only make sense within the context of the game and its rules, but it makes no sense to say that she is pretending to be a midfielder, nor that she is in a make-believe game. The game and her role are both absolutely real, but only within that context. In fact, the agreed-upon reality are what give the game and her actions their meaning, are what prevent her from using her hands to block a pass, from tripping a rushing ballhandler.

Palmer also lays out some characteristics of imagination, one of the most interesting being that we can imagine something being true without actually asserting that it is true. I can imagine that it’s raining right now, without actually perceiving that it is.

… when we apply this distinction to the problem of fiction the bare fact that we neither believe, nor are required to believe, that fictional occurrences are actual occurrences constitutes no impediment to our ability to understand them… Since it it literally inconceivable that a non-existent man should perform the deeds of Hamlet, in attending to the play we think of Hamlet as an existent man without thinking that there is any such person. (53)

He then follows that with the imaginative attitude that readers or viewers take when encountering a work of fiction:

… we are led through a writer’s handing of his chosen medium to experience characters and their circumstances within some sort of Gestalt. In order to accept the invitation to the imagination we therefore must be prepared to enter into a relationship with the work, such that our understanding of the characters needs to be as genuine and convincing as our understanding of actual people. (59)

Finally, he asserts that we bring the same sorts of contextualized judgments to fictional characters’ behavior as we do to that of “real” people. Actions are never merely neutral, they exist within a context of history and motive and circumstance that utterly change their meanings.

Suppose that I discover a friend has betrayed a confidence… Suppose I now discover circumstances which suggest he is not the rogue I thought he was. The words slipped out while he was drunk, or he was talking in his sleep, or perhaps his wife was depressed and, in a desperate attempt to get her to see things in perspective, he found himself revealing my long battle against alcoholism or the brave face I had been putting on a terminal illness. Discovering this, I may feel inclined to say that I no longer blame him, But this lessens my inclination to say that he ‘betrayed’ a confidence. Perhaps the changed description is ‘he revealed my secret’. At any rate I shall be seeing his act under some different description. I shall have a different conception of what he has done. (63)

And of course, we do exactly this when we consider the actions and statements of any fictional character. We encounter them within the context of the story as well as within the context of our understanding of how people behave in daily life, and both sets of rules shape our meaning and our judgments. That is, we treat those characters as though they had normal human agency, and we treat the world of the novel as analogously real to the world we otherwise inhabit. Fiction would not matter otherwise, just as people running up and down a soccer pitch would not matter without our acceptance of the rules and rituals and history of the sport. The fictional world is real. The fact that its reality is enclosed within the context of that particular story makes it no different than the reality of any workplace, any economic system, any religious belief. All of those worlds have internal facts that are crucial within them, irrelevant or inapplicable beyond them.

More tomorrow.

When The Characters Exist, And We Don’t

This is the first of a few posts having to do with Frank Palmer’s book Literature and Moral Understanding: A Philosophical Essay on Ethics, Aesthetics, Education, and Culture (1992, Oxford University Press)

I’ve been wrestling with the idea that I bear ethical responsibilities to the fictional characters I create. In order to think more carefully about that, I asked our local library to obtain a copy of Frank Palmer’s Literature and Moral Understanding, the 1992 book drawn from his 1988 dissertation in philosophy from London University. I’m really just underway with it, so I’ll be giving you a reader’s report as I go.

It’s not my intention to recapitulate his entire argument, which would be the same as making a 1:1 scale model of a house. (Here’s the book, if you’d like.) Rather, I’m going to stop the tape periodically and point out some idea that he’s made me think about.

He makes the argument that there is an internal mode of discourse about fiction, in which it makes sense to speak of a character doing or wanting or saying something, and an external mode of discourse, in which those characters and settings do not exist. So far, that makes pretty obvious sense. When we read The Hustler, we get to say things like “Eddie Felson grew up in Oakland,” but when we stand outside the book, it makes no sense for us to find a 1930s Oakland telephone directory and look for the Felson family’s listing.

But then Palmer makes an important claim, and one that I don’t think even he quite understands the importance of. He says “… I cannot rush on to the heath to reason with Lear—not because he does not exist, but because as far as the play is concerned I do not, and indeed cannot, if I am to understand it.” (38)

Let’s call these world 1 (the world internal to the story) and world 2 (the ‘real’ world). In world 2, the world I’m sitting in right now in Vermont on August 11, 2019, the fictional characters I might discuss don’t exist. But in world 1, the world inside the story… I don’t exist, and those characters and places do! Put another way, I am not a participant in those stories:

The ‘world” of Mansfield Park differs from our world, not in the sense that it contains different sorts of creatures from actual persons, but in the sense that we cannot be a party to anything that happens in it. (38-9).

And really, isn’t that a description of the best possible experience of reading? We cease to exist. We are not in our chair, not feeling the sweat of a humid day, not thinking about the itch between our shoulders or the thirst of our empty water bottle. We are lost to the world of the pages… not because we play any role within it, but because we have left the world in which even the concept of our self has no meaning, and have entered a different world.

When a book fails us, our selves are fully present in our experience. We feel ourselves to be frustrated, or angry, or bored, or confused. We have opinions. But when we’re fully in world 1, when the writer has opened that portal for us, we no longer inhabit our world 2 selves, our minds nor our bodies… but we also have no place in world 1. We are not doing those story things, we cannot intervene in what’s happening, we can’t talk things over with the confused hero who has misinterpreted her friend’s words. We are nowhere. We do not exist at all.

Two thoughts come from this realization, for me. One is that this helps explain why I’m so frustrated with so much fiction that comes from academic MFA programs. Those writers make their bones through critical analysis, through actively using their world 2 brains and references to explain—and later, to create—world 1 people and phenomena. They don’t play by fiction rules, they play by critical rules, and their fiction suffers greatly for it, always held at an ironic arm’s length for active, constant consideration.

The other, though, is that Parker’s analysis (at least so far, I’m only 40 pages in) deals with the role of the reader, and not the role of the writer. The writer is that strange creature sitting in world 2 who really can make things happen in world 1, not as a character, but in a completely different role. If the reader exists nowhere at all, the writer exists in two places at once. Who, then, am I when I write?

More tomorrow.

Cue Ceremony

I guess I might as well come out. I’m Cueish. That is, I have a deeply emotional and historically informed experience with playing pool, or snooker, or carom billiards, or any of the innumerable cue sports. There is enormous beauty and meaning within the enclosed rails, patterns waiting to be revealed.

This is my cue, an instrument of craft and care in its creation and (sometimes, at least aspirationally) in its use. It was made by Thierry Layani, a thoughtful and ingenious Quebecois cuemaker who makes a couple of hundred a year rather than a couple of hundred per day. But really, everything about that room is a shrine. There’s nothing in there that doesn’t relate in some way to the evocation of craft and care. I have a little statuette on the side table, brought to me from Ghana by a former student who told me that the figure was representative of wisdom. Along with instructional books and rulebooks, the small bookcase also holds two chapbooks of my friend’s poetry.

When I uncover the table, I have a specific sequence for folding the canvas cover, like folding an altar cloth, or a flag. When he table is covered, there is a wooden Buddha on the canvas, not because I’m Buddhist but because it reminds me to be attentive, to slow down and take care. That Buddha is wrapped with a knit shawl in the colors of the table, the electric blue of the cloth and the burnt orange of the table skirts and the tan of the maple cues. When I uncover the table, the Buddha goes on a stand next to the bookcase; when I re-cover the table at session’s end, it goes back into a particular spot next just below the right side pocket, facing the door. I place a reliquary item before it, something to remind me of my goals for the next encounter. A cue ball, if my position control has been shoddy. A cube of chalk if my use of spin has been haphazard.

I say thank you to the room before I close the door to leave.

Friends who come to that room don’t know that, and so they apply their own vocabulary and associated rituals to it. It’s a game room, to compete and win or lose. It’s a man cave, to drink and joke around. It’s not like I have a sign at the top of the stairs laying out the rules of encounter, so it’s only natural that visitors rely on rules they’ve learned elsewhere. Sometimes I work to bring them around, but sometimes their energy is strong enough that I don’t work against it. The room becomes secularized. When I put it together again, I apologize to it, ask its forgiveness. Wait for it to become sacred again. It doesn’t happen right away.

Some friends recently went to Japan, and returned with wonderful stories and images and gifts. And one of the things they described was participating in a traditional tea ceremony. Everything precise, everything small and proscribed and layered with history. When the cup is presented, the recipient turns it counterclockwise so that the image on the cup faces them. If you just want to drink some tea, you can go to the convenience store and buy a bottle for a buck and a half. If you attend a tea ceremony, it’s because you want something greater than a simple refreshment.

Every place in our lives can be that way. A tavern can be a place to stay hydrated, a place to watch football, or a place to get wasted. But it can also be a place to discover flavor combinations, to renew friendships, to enjoy the pleasures of hospitality. The inside of my car can be a comfortable box to get me from one spot to another, and I can let the radio invade with its random stimuli. But it can also be a place to focus on the craft of driving, the shape of the road. We get to decide on the meaning of places, to turn them to greater or lesser ends.

My pool room is designed specifically to support my cue ceremony. It’s where I teach, it’s where I practice. I inhabit it in specific, care-ful ways. And that helps me better understand the spaces of others as well. I try to watch how they use a space, where I naturally fit within the flow, what parts I’m invited into and what parts seem to be less public. A space is a container of ritual, and the ritual is what’s central.

When you enter a space, watch for the ritual. There won’t be a sign. Just watch what happens, and what doesn’t. Don’t intervene without waiting for some sense of how your host flows through it. Lose your willfulness and let the space teach you how to be.

A Free Offer for Loyal Readers


Thanks to everyone for being along on the ride for the first hundred posts. As a special event, I thought I’d try something different. As I noted a week or so ago, I’ve finished a new story, “The Feather of the Falcon.” I’m putting it up here as an audio story.

Here’s to the next hundred posts, and thanks for being with me so far. It’s great to hear from you. Let’s keep in touch.

The Cost of Cost Control

Times are tough… we might have to let go of Andre…

I don’t know what any of this means, so I’m just going to tell you and maybe you can figure it out.

Our region had a pretty substantial rain event on April 15th of this year, which resulted in a lot of road shoulders washed out around our town, a couple of culverts failing, a couple of sinkholes. We have a professional highway crew of two people to serve our ten miles of paved and twenty-six miles of unpaved roads, and they went through a lot of work to bring all of those locations back to pre-storm condition.

After about two months, FEMA finally determined that rain event was an eligible disaster, qualifying us for partial reimbursement. Our road foreman, having worked before with FEMA and on lots of road-improvement grants, had done all of the work of taking before-and-after pictures linked to latitude and longitude coordinates (who knew that cameras were capable of doing geodata? I’m so old…), recording timesheets and equipment logs for eligible Town work, keeping receipts for purchased gravel and crushed stone. So we’re in good shape to apply for reimbursement.

The overall costs we could reasonably apply to this event’s repairs total about $45,000, and FEMA reimburses at a 75% rate, so we’re eligible to receive maybe $34K. That’d be good; it’s about ten percent of our overall highway budget for the year.

But here’s the problem. We had a start-up phone call this morning that included six people, for about forty minutes. The purpose of that call was to set us up for our first face-to-face meeting in a month, three or so hours with eight people coming from as far away as the state capitol, a two-hour drive. And then there are the bookkeepers who will handle all of our receipts and timesheets, and examine them against the Town’s insurance policy and employment policy and procurement policy. Between the personnel costs and the accounting costs and the documentation costs, this project is going to eat almost as much in overhead as it does in cash reimbursement—our $35K is going to cost $70K.

I’ve had this conversation in the past, with someone making about $100K a year whose job is to coordinate legislative advocacy for children’s health care. At some point, isn’t it just cheaper to put a barrel of money and a shovel on the side of the road and let people take what they need?

The problem, it seems, is graft. If we don’t supervise every single detail, then the unscrupulous will take every advantage. See, for instance, the well-to-do parents in Chicago who are helping their children file for emancipation so that they qualify for more financial aid for their expensive colleges. So every rule, every clause, every form, every moment of oversight, is there to keep (mostly wealthy) people from taking more than they should. Most “welfare queens” are in the uppermost tax brackets, and always have been. In fact, I’ll put forth a first principle of governance: it ought to be easy for people without money to get some, and hard for people with money to get more.

Anyway, here’s my challenge, to any economist or forensic accountants out there who want an interesting (and perhaps revolutionary) research project. Does the cost to prevent theft and waste equal as much as might be stolen or wasted in the first place? Would we save money and be more effective by putting (metaphoric) barrels of cash in impoverished neighborhoods so that people just aren’t poor? What if we just drove into Flint with a team of excavators and plumbers, and replaced the city’s water system for free this summer? Wouldn’t that be cheaper than all of the investment in tracking down exactly which household or which street qualified for what kind of repair?

What if your hospital, instead of verifying your insurance and filing a claim for each discrete billing code, just said “Come on in, we’ll fix you up.” I read an article not long ago about an American woman who was staying in Iceland, who was worried about a lump in her breast and called the local clinic. They were confused at her questions about “appointments” and “referrals,” and just told her to come in whenever it was convenient. Three dollars, one lab test, and four days later, she was determined to have a cyst rather than a tumor. Done. Why do we freak out about stuff like this? It’s so easy that every other country has figured out how to do it!

Lest you imagine that this is an anti-big-government screed, you can take any sentence you like and fill it in with Comcast or Blue Cross or the Toyota Motor Company or Stanford University and get the same answer. We have a cultural question, not merely an organizational one.

As the saying goes, haters gonna hate. So too, grifters gonna grift. What if we were able to be brave enough to admit that, to know that we can’t prevent every bit of it, to absorb some level of loss, and by so doing, save a cubic shit-ton by not overseeing everything? Our drive to efficiency and fairness has made us enormously inefficient and unfair.