“We must choose a standard to hold ourselves to. Perhaps we’re influenced to pick some particular standard; perhaps we pick it at random. Neither seems particularly ‘authentic,’ but we swerve around paradox here because it’s not clear that this matters. It’s the commitment to the choice that makes behavior authentic.” — Brian Christian, The Most Human Human (emphasis in original)
“The Usual Story” is another of the stories I initially wrote about a dozen years ago and which was published early this year in Mad Hatters’ Review. It’s the last previously-published story I have in my inventory. Next week I’ll have to post something else. Probably poetry. There was a call some weeks back from one of my three readers for some poetry.
I’ll probably post all my previously-published poetry over a three-week period. Unless I chicken out. Some of it’s pretty embarrassing. No sense hiding, though. I thought it was good enough to submit in the first place, and it got published. Not in American Poetry Review or Poetry or The New Yorker or anything like that. I should be so lucky. It all showed up in little mags, some of which have long since passed away.
“What defines us is that we don’t know what to do and there aren’t any revelations out there for us waiting to be found. Profoundly disoriented and lacking any real mooring, we must make it all up from scratch ourselves, each one of us, individually. We arrive in a bright room, wet, bloody, bewildered, some stranger smacking us and cutting what had been, up to that point, our only source of oxygen and food. We have no idea what is going on. We don’t know what we’re supposed to do, where we’re supposed to go, who we are, where we are, or what in the world, after all this trauma, comes next. We wail.” — Brian Christian, The Most Human Human (emphasis in original)
“Cobbled-together bits of human interaction do not a human relationship make. Not fifty one-night stands, not fifty speed dates, not fifty transfers through the bureaucratic pachinko. No more than sapling tied to sapling, oak though they may be, makes an oak. Fragmentary humanity isn’t humanity.” — Brian Christian, The Most Human Human
“For most people will power is a limited resource; if we spend lots of energy controlling our impulses in one area, it becomes harder to control our impulses in others. Or, as the psychologist Roy Baumeister puts it, will power is like a muscle: overuse temporarily exhausts it.” — James Suroweicki, “In Praise of Distraction”
“In punishing wrongdoers, no one concentrates on the fact that a man has done wrong in the past, or punishes him on that account, unless taking blind vengeance like a beast. No, punishment is not inflicted by a rational man for the sake of the crime that has been committed–after all one cannot undo what is past–but for the sake of the future, to prevent either the same man or, by the spectacle of his punishment, someone else, from doing wrong again. But to hold such a view amounts to holding that virtue can be instilled by education; at all events the punishment is inflicted as a deterrent. This then is the view held by all who inflict it whether privately or publicly.” — Plato, Protagoras (trans. Guthrie)
“No one is angered by the thoughts which are believed to be due to nature or chance, nor do people rebuke or teach or punish those who exhibit them, in the hope of curing them; they simply pity them. Who would be so foolish as to treat in that way the ugly or dwarfish or weak? Everyone knows that it is nature or chance which gives this kind of characteristics to a man, both the good and the bad. But it is otherwise with the good qualities which are thought to be acquired through care and practice and instruction. It is the absence of these, surely, and the presence of the corresponding vices, that call forth indignation and punishment and admonition. Among these faults are to be put injustice and irreligion and in general everything that is contrary to civic virtue. In this field indignation and admonition are universal, evidently because of a belief that such virtue can be acquired by taking thought or by instruction.” — Plato, Protagoras (trans. Guthrie)
The voice in “the talking french cat” came to me in a dream. I thought of writing an entire book in that voice, but I couldn’t sustain it, then it was gone. And would a reader really want to spend an entire book, even a slim volume, with that person and that voice? Madness and despair grow so quickly tiresome.
I wrote the first draft of “the talking french cat” ten or eleven years ago. It took me several more years to hammer it into shape, then Mad Hatters’ Review published it earlier this year.
“We mold the best and strongest among ourselves, catching them young like lion cubs, and by spells and incantations we make slaves of them, saying that they must be content with equality and that this is what is right and fair. But if a man arises endowed with a nature sufficiently strong, he will, I believe, shake off all these controls, burst his fetters, and break loose. And trampling upon our scraps of paper, our spells and incantations, and all our unnatural conventions, he rises up and reveals himself our master who was once our slave, and there shines forth nature’s true justice.” — Plato, Gorgias (trans. Woodhead)
“Above the autumnal opacity of the park the night is flushed by a vague reddish glow. In the ravaged upholstery of the treetops crows wake with caws of mindless alarm and, deceived by the false dawn, take off in noisy squads; their yawping, reeling disarray throws tumult and vibrations into the murky redness tartly redolent of herbage and fallen leaves. Eventually the great flurry of loops and turns all over the sky subsides; calming gradually, it descends, lighting in the combed-out tangle of trees in a ragged, provisional file that still shows signs of unrest, rife with misgivings, chatter falling silent, plaintive queries. At last the swarm settles down for good and becomes part of the sibilant stillness of the surrounding languor. And night, deep and late, resumes its sway.” — Bruno Schulz, “Fatherland” (trans. Wieniewska)
“Autumn is the human soul’s yearning for matter, essence, boundary. When for unexplored reasons human metaphors, projects, dreams begin to hanker for realization, the time of autumn is at hand. Those phantoms that, formerly spread out over the furthest reaches of the human cosmos, lent its high vaults the colors of their spectra now return to man, seeking the warmth of his breath, the cozy narrow shelter of his home, the niche that holds his bed.” — Bruno Schulz, “Autumn” (trans. Wieniewska)
Very few of the stories I’ve had published have undergone no substantial rewrite, “substantial” being a subjective term that, whatever it may mean, almost certainly means more than giving a story a “polish” (whatever that may mean). “Rag Doll” was first drafted about fifteen years before I finally got it into a shape a publisher would accept. Mad Hatters’ Review published it earlier this year, along with three other of my stories.
(And on the subject of first drafts, early this afternoon I finished the first draft of the project I’ve been working on for the past four months.)
“Once upon a time, there existed gods but no mortal creatures. When the appointed time came for these also to be born, the gods formed them within the earth out of a mixture of earth and fire and the substances which are compounded from earth and fire. And when they were ready to bring them to the light, they charged Prometheus and Epimetheus with the task of equipping them and allotting suitable powers to each kind. Now Epimetheus begged Prometheus to allow him to do the distribution himself–‘and when I have done it,’ he said, ‘you can review it.’ So he persuaded him and set to work. In his allotment he gave to some creatures strength without speed, and equipped the weaker kinds with speed. Some he armed with weapons, while to the unarmed he gave some other faculty and so contrived means for their preservation. To those that he endowed with smallness, he granted winged flight or a dwelling underground; to those which he increased in stature, their size itself was a protection. Thus he made his whole distribution on a principle of compensation, being careful by these devices that no species should be destroyed.
“When he had sufficiently provided means of escape from mutual slaughter, he contrived their comfort against the seasons sent from Zeus, clothing them with thick hair or hard skins sufficient to ward off the winter’s cold, and effective also against heat, and he planned that when they went to bed, the same coverings should serve as proper and natural bedclothes for each species. He shod them also, some with hoofs, others with hard and bloodless skin.
“Next he appointed different sorts of food for them–to some the grass of the earth, to others the fruit of the trees, to others roots. Some he allowed to gain their nourishment by devouring other animals, and these he made less prolific, while he bestowed fertility on their victims, and so preserved the species.
“Now Epithemeus was not a particularly clever person, and before he realized it he had used up all the available powers on the brute beasts, and being left with the human race on his hands unprovided for, did not know what to do with them. While he was puzzling about this, Prometheus came to inspect the work, and found the other animals well off for everything, but man naked, unshod, unbedded, and unarmed, and already the appointed day had come, when man too was to emerge from within the earth into the daylight. Prometheus therefore, being at a loss to provide any means of salvation for man, stole from Hephaestus and Athena the gift of skill in the arts, together with fire–for without fire it was impossible for anyone to possess or use this skill–and bestowed it on man. In this way man acquired sufficient resources to keep himself alive.” — Plato, Protagoras (trans. Guthrie)
“We have been outsourcing our intelligence, and our humanity, to machines for centuries. They have long been faster, bigger, tougher, more deadly. Now they are much quicker at calculation and infinitely more adept at memory than we have ever been. And so now we decide that memory and calculation are not really part of mind. It’s not just that we move the goalposts; we mock the machines’ touchdowns as they spike the ball. We place the communicative element of language above the propositional and argumentative element, not because it matters more but because it’s all that’s left to us.” — Adam Gopnik, “Get Smart”