“After all, he seems to have a lot to say about what can’t be said.” Bertrand Russell.
Ludwig Wittgenstein came from a very wealthy family of Vienna, in the time before WW I, a family of musicians, professors, and suicides. He went to the same grammar school as Adolf Hitler. His sister was painted by Gustav Klimt, and helped Sigmund Freud escape the Nazis. He fought in WWI, reading Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief, while voluntarily manning the point, the most dangerous position, on the front. Beethoven was his hero. He was precocious in math, and obsessed by logic.
He would scrutinize his own thinking to find the hidden assumptions that underlie all thinking and the subtle ways that logic fails to be logical. He would puzzle over the use of words in speech – what is subconscious to most of us – and search for hidden patterns. He wanted to know how we know, what we know, what can be known.
“Sometimes my ideas come so quickly that I feel as if my pen is being guided.”
He was perplexed by the riddles of self reference in logic, the great stumbling block in Bertrand Russell’s attempt, in Principia Mathematica, to derive all knowledge from first principles of logic. Is the set of all sets that don’t include themselves, also a set?
He became anti-philosophical, convinced that philosophical questions were merely linguistic puzzles, and that language, with all of its mixing up of perceptions and conceptions, hopelessly impaired thought. Truth can only be known by experience, not with thinking, and only shown, with art perhaps, but not with words. Thought and speech are mere ‘social games’ for living a social human life (something, sadly, he himself was not much able to do).
“Whereof one can not speak, thereof one must remain silent”.
With his spooky certitude, and mesmerizing stare, he was considered brilliant. For a time, he was thought to have eclipsed all of conventional philosophy. He was lionized.
John Maynard Keynes: “I have met God, he arrived on the 4:30 train.”
He lived an eccentric, solitary life, much of his time in a remote cabin in Norway. At one point he gave away all of his enormous wealth, and lived thereafter in near poverty. He feared going mad, that he might commit suicide. Three brothers did.
He suffered a constant solipsism, an oppressive self consciousness, haunted by a loss of self connection. Is my thinking about myself also my self?
He was a disorder of self reference, like the paradoxes of logic that so obsessed him.
Insanity and genius are not the same thing.
“He has penetrated deep into mystical ways of thought and feeling, but I think (though he wouldn’t agree) that what he likes best in mysticism is its power to make him stop thinking.” Bertrand Russell.
“Peace in thinking is the wished-for aim of those who philosophize.”
He was trying to think his way out of thinking too much. He didn’t succeed.
“I don’t really know what the interior of anybody else is like – I often feel very fragmented, and as if I have a symphony of different voices, and voice overs, and factoids, going on all the time, and digressions on digressions…” David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace was always Meta-thinking – thinking about thinking. He could be insightful, and engaging, and interesting, but get lost in recursions and riddles of semantics, and in puzzles of grammar.
He lived inside his head.
He would talk about the “special sort of buzz” logical thinking could give him.
“a gorgeously simple solution to a problem you suddenly see, after half a notebook with gnarly attempted solutions, you about hear a . . .click“.
Boredom was terrifying. He suffered severe writer’s block. There was this constant, oppressive feeling of something not feeling right, that he wasn’t really, somehow. . . him. He felt a menacing sense of disconnection with himself.
Being a person was like being a ghost.
Substance use gave him great relief, it helped him feel whole. He became addicted with a natural ease.
At a Kenyon College commencement, speaking to an audience of avid readers and writers, he tried to warn them about the dangers of the mental life: be careful! mentation isn’t all it is cracked up to be! you can be a fish swimming in water, and not know what water is. Stay grounded in simple truths, he said, somehow they are really true.
” The word despair is overused and banalized now but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. It’s close to what people call dread or angst, but it’s not these things, quite it’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable sadness of knowing I’m small and selfish and going, without a doubt, to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.”
Julian Jaynes famously noted that the mind of Achilles, in the Iliad – a mind solely and completely in the present – is very different from the mind of Odysseus, in the Odyssey – a mind scheming to manipulate appearance and orchestrate the future. Sometime in antiquity, between the Iliad and the Odyssey, Jaynes thought, the human mind had changed. Perhaps it was the advent of writing, and the emergence of the reading mind. Reading ignites the imagination.
With people like David Foster Wallace, reading can take the imagination too far.
With endless digressions, and foot notes to foot notes, the writing of David Foster Wallace is more a psychiatric exposition than it is literature. He conveys for us his lost, unmoored, and painful experience of being. That is his sad contribution.
“He waited two more days for an opportunity. In the early evening on Friday, September 12, Wallace suggested that his wife go out to prepare for an opening…After she left, he went into the garage and turned on the lights. He wrote her a two page note. Then he crossed through the house to the patio, where he climbed onto a chair and hanged himself.”
Our solar system is not a perfect clock. There have been 16 ice ages in the past million years.
“Small variations in the tilt of the Earth on its axis and variations in the planet’s elliptical path around the sun are all that is necessary to plunge the planet in and out of the freezer. ” Tim Flannery.
Some 120,000 years ago, modern humans migrated out of Africa, and we kept going, first into the middle east, then on to southeast Asia, with a detour down into Australia, then up the eastern Pacific to the Bering Strait, and finally into North America. By 15,000 year ago, we reached the tip of South America.
We evolved in Africa, from a hairy, tree climbing, social primate ancestor. Somehow, over time, we lost most of our hair, gained a lining of body fat, developed upright walking, a descended larynx that enabled speech, special sweat glands for thermal regulation, and a diving reflex for swimming. We became like sea mammals, more suited for water than the forest or savannah. Dolphins are our close cousins in intelligence and communication, the whale is the only other mammal to have menopause. Where and when this happened is a mystery. The Afar Triangle of northeast Africa, on the way out of Africa, may have been a vast, flooded wetlands. We may have had to swim our way out of Africa.
We followed the coastlines, along the beaches and up rivers, as sea gatherers and fishermen. Food was plentiful, rich in value, and easy to harvest. The travel and protection were easier. We love the beach to this day.
Our journey was during a perilous geologic time. A warming earth was melting ice, rising sea levels, lifting and shifting tectonic plates, causing earthquakes and volcanoes. Released by the loss of the weight of the great ice sheets as they melted, continental plates heaved up, and the moon pulled stronger on the increasing tidal waters. The Pacific tectonic plate, being the largest and the thinnest – only 2.5 miles thick – moved and cracked the most, aggravating the ‘ring of fire’ of volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunami’s that pound all the coasts of the Pacific Ocean.
As modern humans arrived along the South East Asian coast, some 70,000 years ago, the shallow, continental Pacific Sundra shelf waters were flooding, and a great volcano – perhaps the greatest ever volcano – Toba – in Indonesia on the island of Sumatra, erupted. The massive blast of volcanic dust blackened the sky, creating a volcanic winter and mass extinction. Human life all the way back to northern Africa was nearly extinguished.
The surviving humans were pushed inland and north, and eventually into the New World. Floods, tidal waves, receding waters, and exploding volcanoes filled their prehistoric consciousness. This has carried on to our day, in the creation stories of the world, told by their descendants.
The myths are not myths, they are history.
In the beginning the world was in water, and there was darkness. And then light came to the sky, and then the sun appeared and separated the earth from the sky.
Alberto Giacometti lived most of his sculptor life in a Paris apartment/studio, without hot water or a bathroom. Brother Diego was his foundry assistant. He chain-smoked 4 packs a day, and wore the same grey, herring bone suit, 24 hours a day. He would buy a new one – same color, same style – once a year. He went to restaurants for his meals, bistros and clubs for drinks and conversation, and brothels now and then. He was very upset when prostitution was made illegal. He worked in his studio all night, and slept most of the day. He married late, reluctantly, and enjoyed mistresses. He had no children.
To Giacometti, life was magical. He saw wonder in everything. He believed in the intense significance of his feelings, and in the possibilities of the mysterious. He savored primary sensation. Attracted to the surrealists, he at first painted and sculpted as they wanted, from the psychological, the philosophical, and the political. But it really didn’t take him where he wanted to go. Existential angst, he realized, was not political, or philosophical, or, for that matter, anything new in human history. And it wasn’t artistic. He moved on. Andre Breton, their commandant, wanted a discussion. Giacometti escaped. “No, that won’t be necessary”.
He discovered an obsession “to represent what I see”. Not what his eyes see, but what he sees.
For years he tried and failed. Constantly studying people on the street, and in conversations, he was drawn to the misfits and histrionic types, people who played out their selves, up front, unaffected. He would pose his models for hours and days on end. All night he would attempt sculpture, only to destroy it in the morning, unsatisfied.
His friends and family lost confidence. He seemed more and more a lost eccentric.
At times, having looked so long and so hard, he would feel an entranced loss of the thoughts and identifications of what he was seeing. The work would take control. Expressive shapes and proportions would emerge.
“he found to his amazement, and to his consternation, that the sculpture grew smaller and smaller. The smaller it grew, the more troubled it became, yet he could not keep if from shrinking. The sculpture itself seemed to determine in advance its appropriate size, would accept no alternative and compelled the sculptor to comply.”
Training builds creative and perceptive skill. Practice areas of the brain become . . . swollen.
“The posterior hippocampus, the area of the brain known to be important for memory, is bigger in London cab drivers than in most people.”
Attending a play in a theatre in Paris, looking at the stage and then at the audience around him, he had this realization that he was seeing differently, in some new way, “not like a camera“, but in dimensions of space and time, . . . with a strange sense of becoming.
His work became art, sculpture with the essentials of human form, intention in posture, purpose in motion, all with an aura of being and becoming
. . . what you see with your mind.
Timing is in the brain, it is basic to how it works. Neurons prolong instantaneous stimuli, sending them down axon nerve wires, and releasing them at synapse nodes, in variable lengths requiring variable time, on to other axon network circuits. In this way, the brain creates temporal patterns out of instant sounds, and that is music. The brain is a musical instrument. It is a time machine.
And it can synchronize. The brain can do rhythm. And on top of rhythm, dancing with it, like ideas that play with words, the brain can do melody. Patterns on top of patterns create a live, unified, dynamic experience, like being alive itself. Body and mind, thought and feeling, rhythm and melody.
Jazz lives on the edge. . . having both rhythm and melody, and having neither. We like to go into, and out of, and back into, timing, and structure, and point/ counter point. That is what our lives do, and that is what our neurons do, and that is what we like our art to do. We seek order and we seek improvisation. Rhythm paces melody, and melody challenges rhythm. They swing apart, and back together, like partners on the floor. Catharsis and synthesis. It feels good. We play music and music plays us.
In the movie Whiplash, an elite music school teacher has a very skilled, musical ear. He has been thru the scores countless times, with countless students. He knows their ranges, he is primed to hear their mistakes. “This makes him a good teacher.” Don’t believe it. It gives him power, and he uses it. He uses it to humiliate them, to prey on their vulnerabilities. He makes them feel that their failures are their fault. A bully with relish.
I HURT YOU FOR YOUR OWN GOOD, AND YOU DON”T EVEN DESERVE IT!
He enjoys it. And he is good at it. Kind and considerate, in just the right doses, he keeps everyone uncertain. Good people are willing to doubt themselves.
A skilled liar, he announces that a former student, (a former victim), one who had eventually found musical success, has died. Misty-eyed, our teacher tells his class that it was an accident. He knows it was a suicide.
One student drummer, however, is very determined. He doesn’t just want to be good, he wants to be the best. Go around obstacles. If necessary, plow thru them. He becomes a targeted victim, but he doesn’t relent, he runs the gauntlet. He does what you have to do with the likes of this teacher, fight back. His sympathetic father sort of wants him surrender, but he refuses.
People like this teacher are everywhere, . . . in sports, education, business, politics. And they often get far. Good people will defer, they won’t fight, they dont want to judge. People like him somehow know that.
They have to be opposed.
Our drummer does it, in the end, with a unrelenting, exillarating, commanding, and triumphant crescendo of rhythm and drumming. . . and justice.