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Liminal Space 2
The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse)
Welcome to Liminal Spaces, a place for me to put my brief and scattered thoughts (and invite you to share yours) between essays.
As you can see in the revised description above, I’m simplifying these posts. They will now serve as a place for me to put my brief and scattered thoughts (and extend an invitation to you to share yours) between essays. The things I share here may or may not have anything to do with the essays I’m working on. If you find my seemingly constant changes of heart and mind and course exhausting, please know that I empathize deeply.
A little over a decade ago, Heart's Ann and Nancy Wilson joined Jason Bonham onstage to honor Led Zeppelin at the Kennedy Center Opera House. They did so by performing “Stairway to Heaven.” The Algorithm has been pushing this video on me for years, and I’ve been ignoring it for just as long. I had been, that is. Sitting in my kitchen on Friday night, with music playing via YouTube, The Algorithm finally got its way. And I concede that I should have let it have it earlier. Despite the stuffiness of all the suits and celebrities in the opera house, it’s a powerful and moving performance, one that owes a lot to the choir and strings and takes its time and builds and grows. But watching the members of Led Zeppelin take it in—Robert Plant’s strained face and wet eyes in particular—adds a dimension that makes it that much more moving. I can only imagine all the historical and existential layers that must have been unfurling in each of them as they sat and watched and listened. I didn’t write the song or carry it around the world with me while creating my myth and legend. I don’t even really care for it that much. Even so, sitting in my kitchen, all these years and miles from whence it began, a whole trove of historical and existential layers unfurled even in me. Not many things can do that. Music, stories, smells—I think that’s about it.
We take music for granted. Maybe because a lot of it is so flaccid and seems born somehow from nothing—as though there’s no real pain or suffering or human necessity on the driver’s side of it. Maybe because it’s become too easy to make and acquire. Maybe because too much new music just sounds like new technology. Still, when the real thing comes along, it is something to behold, something holy and mysterious, something charged and erect. Something not to be taken for granted.
Rationalist Steven Pinker has referred to music as "auditory cheesecake"—pleasurable to listen to but not especially useful for our survival.The more I think about this, the more I see his point. But the more I see his point, the more I see the limits of rationality. Music done right is auditory salmon. It is loaded with nutrients for the mind, body, and soul. How the body? Because the three are clearly connected. And if you think there's no soul, then fine, ignore that part. The other two are still clearly connected. Songs are sacraments. The good ones are, anyway. How do we know which ones are the good ones? We just do. Said another way, we don’t know; we just intuit. Things like music can't be measured or judged with rationality. It would be like measuring the distance from your heart to the moon with a tape measure. A tool can be the right one for some things and the wrong one for others. For more examples of this, see all tools.
When fruit flies see the dead bodies of other fruit flies, it triggers a rapid aging process in their brains that causes them to die faster.
Following Christian protests, Poland's 666 bus will no longer run to the town of Hel, moving our modern world one step closer to complete insufferable sanitization.
- has a new short story in which one man literally shares the feelings and experiences of another via some vaguely futuristic medical treatment/technology. In an interview about the story, Saunders had this to say about the melding of minds that is central to it:
A human community is really just a bunch of highly subjective thought-streams, generated by clumps of flesh inside the heads of a group of bodies, bodies that are blundering around, each convinced that his or her thought-stream is the one and only authoritative, objective thought-stream.
It’s fascinating to me how ostensibly "truthful" things like journalism often distort reality, whereas "reality-distorting" things like (science) fiction often guide us to deeper truths.
After learning about Ted Kaczynski’s death, I rewatched the Unabomber docuseries across four nights. I then read Kaczynski’s manifesto in full for the first time. At what point do we develop the thing in our psyches that makes us averse to doing harm? How sensitive is the switch that turns that thing off? The bombs and killings and injuries inflicted, the burdens and grief and baggage spread, are all clearly wrong. But there’s a lot in the manifesto that seems right to me, a lot that could have been written yesterday, and that, because it wasn’t, only seems more right to me today. Take the first paragraph:
1. The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in “advanced” countries.
Other than the certainty, there’s nothing written there that I’d object to. There’s plenty of truth and complexity to be found on both sides of the argument. And after spending a lot of my time weighing those particular truths and complexities as part of my “progress”-centric day job, I have to say that I’m more with Kaczynski than not on this one. In fact, it wasn’t until I reached the 96th of Kaczynski’s 232 numbered paragraphs—the one that concludes with the now-famous words: “In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we’ve had to kill people”—that I objected to something more than just his certainty.
Like his victims and their loved ones, though, I have no trouble empathizing with Kaczynski. That might be hard for some people to understand. But it’s really pretty straightforward to me: If you’re not able to empathize with the people who’ve done the worst things you can imagine, if you’re not able to see how they became who they did, and how easily you could have become who they did, and still might, then you’re not really able to empathize at all. I mean, sure, you can do it. But only like a white belt can do it. Not like a black belt can.
“First, do no harm,” Hippocrates never actually wrote. But it’s still a fairly unassailable—albeit technically unattainable—guiding light. One need not be a doctor to try hard not to damage human life. Kaczynski got that wrong, and still I empathize with him, and still he got that wrong.
Not that I want to be a god or a hero. Just to change into a tree, grow for ages, not hurt anyone.
Human beings fight not because they are different, but because they are the same, and in their attempts to distinguish themselves have made themselves into enemy twins, human doubles in reciprocal violence.
—René Girard, as quoted byin Wanting
It took me only a moment to look around and comprehend the horror: it was only this world. It was still only our world. The bargain hadn’t changed. The world was still boring. The prize for success was still disappointment. Desire rose in tandem with the satiation of desire. You had everything you needed and nothing you wanted. Life was the same.
—, Following the Word
In our lives, we often attempt to resolve our problems by changing the “external data” of experience, only to discover that wherever we go, there we are: whatever the terrain, the photons it scatters back at us come through the same eyes, to the same mind, which tires of what it once cherished, flees from what it must face, cares for nothing so much as itself until all it has is itself; at which point it saturates with self-sickness and longing.
—, Eat My Shorts 4 / Malice, Models, Malingering, Malick
[Chidiock] Tichborne was hanged, drawn, and quartered alongside six other conspirators in front of a London crowd. I do not know whether human nature is capable of improvement. I tend to think not. But the fact that crowds in London no longer watch this suggests it is possible.
—, The Last Words of a Doomed Poet
Can human nature be improved?
I don’t mean: Is moral progress possible? I don’t mean: Can humans make societal or environmental changes to regulate human nature? I don’t mean: Can human nature be regulated? I mean: Can human nature be improved?
I don’t think it can. I think we’re all playing the same games that everyone before us played, and that everyone after us will play. I think the only things that change are the characters and settings. And I don’t think that’s awful or pessimistic or doomist. I think it’s poetic. I think it should inspire our awe and a sense of deep communion. We all get a consciousness and body from which to learn and grow and try to be better—both inside ourselves and in relation to the people around us—until the scythe comes swinging and sends us shuffling off this mortal coil. That, to me, is liberating. It tells me what’s important—like, three to ten things tops—and exposes the rest for the meaningless sham that it really is.
Deliver them from evil.
Or at least send them to me.
Either via email or in the comments below.
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From The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson:
Many evolutionary psychologists consider art to be an adaptation. In other words, it was evolved and/or maintained by natural selection (including sexual selection) for its role in contributing to our biological fitness. Not everyone agrees; Steven Pinker, for example, famously refers to music as “auditory cheesecake,” pleasurable but not particularly useful. But most evolutionary thinkers credit our propensity to make and enjoy art as adaptive, somehow or other.
This sentence originally read: "Rationalist Steven Pinker has referred to music as ‘auditory cheesecake’—pleasurable to listen to but biologically useless." That was unintentionally misleading, hence the edit.