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[APRIL 2006.]

Sorry About the Dream, Don

Said I to myself: "I could write my goddamn paper about The Goddamn Man Without Qualities—or I could try to read ancient Greek! I already know the alphabet from that star chart I had when I was seven! How hard can it be?” Rosy-fingered dawn found me touring the bookstores for used volumes from the Loeb Classical Library; Black Oak Books came through with the Oresteia and a slightly water-damaged Books III and IV of Herodotus (including my favorite passage from the Histories!). Only as I was moving to buy them did I discover, written on their respective flyleaves, “Don Davidson, Harvard ‘38” and “Don Davidson, Cambridge 1940.” Which fits the biography.

Young Don didn’t make many notes in his books. A few phrases in Agamemnon are underlined: “justice” and (self-referentially?) “pondered by me.” The back flyleaf has some jottings:

Eumenides: Orestes saved because matter is not blood. Cf. Aristotle's idea of form & matter.

Orestes goes mad: the charioteer image p. 261

Appearance & Reality, p. 67
Depends upon assumption that there's a dichotomy.
Ulysses, p. 69, again, 123

I find it incredibly sad to think that after Davidson passed, his entire library was carted off to a bookstore for dispersal—I guess it seems like a repetition of the mind dispersing into nothing. I will try to properly shelter these two fragments. Like what Benjamin says: “To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves.”


Dream of Herr K., Student, Age 27

Myself, Pica, my sister and a friend go to see Donald Davidson give a talk at Stanford. In the dream he looks like Donald Sutherland and is giving a rock concert instead of a philosophy lecture. That makes sense; at this point my dream-knowledge has him confused with Nick Lowe and Brian Eno. He plays a few songs and soon they don’t seem familiar any more. I realize that he is neither Nick Lowe nor Brian Eno, and that his songs are really bad. Pica and I look at each other with displeasure; at least we didn’t pay for this. Davidson now seems like a goofy old man, a brilliant philosopher who has no call to be pursuing this vanity rock career. He is giving the audience hopeful smiles; the whole thing has become sanitized adult-contemporary rock. The band starts up with “Sing, Sing, Sing” and a bunch of old people come onto stage and start swing dancing. “What about the qualia problem?” I call to Pica. “I bet he has interesting things to say about the qualia problem.” I look down at a printed program and see that the concert isn’t even a third over; still to come is a kitschy “Musical Trip ‘Round the World,” a multi-part concept piece called “Aria,” and lengthy tributes to all of Davidson’s family and friends. We decide to bail.


A New Symbolism

125. The feeling of the unreality of one’s surroundings. This feeling I have had once, and many have it before the onset of mental illness. Everything seems somehow not real; but not as if one saw things unclear or blurred; everything looks quite as usual. And how do I know that another has felt what I have? Because he uses the same words as I find appropriate.

But why do I choose precisely the word “unreality” to express it? Surely not because of its sound. (A word of very like sound but different meaning would not do.) I choose it because of its meaning. But surely I did not use the word to mean: a feeling. No; but I learned to use it with a particular meaning and now I use it spontaneously like this. One might say — though it may mislead — : When I have learnt the word in its ordinary meaning, then I choose that meaning as a simile for my feeling. But of course what is in question here is not a simile, not a comparison of the feeling with something else.


133. “But depression is surely a feeling; you surely don’t want to say that you are depressed and don’t feel it? And where do you feel it?” That depends on what you call “feeling it.” If I direct my attention to my bodily feelings, I notice a very slight headache, a slight discomfort in the region of the stomach, perhaps a certain tiredness. But do I mean that, when I say I am severely depressed? — And yet I say again: “I feel a burden weighing on my soul.” “Well, I can’t express it any differently!” — But how remarkable that I say it that way and cannot express it differently!

134. My difficulty is altogether like that of a man who is inventing a new calculus (say the differential calculus) and is looking for a symbolism.

—Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Vol. 1


Author as Symptom

Last night I attended a reading by a noted author whose work I generally enjoy. He chose a story that turned out to be something I had seen several years ago in a magazine, and as he read it occured to me that the trappings of realism were not doing any work in the story—they were tastefully fluted false pillars designed to look like load-bearing structures. The closing revelation was executed correctly, throwing appropriate new light onto the preceding passages, but the mechanism was so obvious that I felt as if I had been watching a series of cogs turning, as if I had been listening to a description of the thing rather than the thing itself. The scene-setting of fiction was simply unnecessary; the ending could have been reworked as a twenty-line poem, the kind of anecdotal poem that appears in the New Yorker, to equal or better effect.

Flaubert and the early Joyce turned the ultraviolet light of their prose onto the real, and made it absolutely transparent and absolutely strange. The strangeness of the ordinary is the highest use of realism, not the familiar anecdote. This lesson is hard to remember and harder to apply.

In the question-and-answer session following the reading, the author discussed the personal tragedy that had inspired the story. He spoke of it honestly and without self-pity, which I admired, but I shrank from the confessional nature of the exchange. The memoir industry has accustomed us to the transaction of selling one’s experiences, but it is so disheartening that the practice of appreciating fiction has also come to rest on the criterion of personal experience rather than the qualities of one’s vision. After all, everything outside experience is merely a question of technique; and surely that’s the job of the editor.


Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, New York, 1949

Left to right: Alexander Fadeyev, Norman Mailer, Dmitri Shostakovich, Arthur Miller, Olaf Stapledon.

Shostakovich only went because Stalin made him.

why don't men stand around looking like norman mailer anymore?

I'm afraid that the example Mailer ended up setting might have ruined that stance for everyone.

try it without the cigarette and the suitcoat; a pencil and an ironic t-shirt don'

I should say not! (Note, by the way, that Shostakovich and Stapledon appear to be the only ones who didn't get the message about taking off their dorky nametags.)

is it me or does mailer look like lee harvey oswald? its just me, right?

Oh come now! It's a peace conference!


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