Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 2017

The art of friction

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“Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult,” Carl von Clausewitz writes in On War, adding: “The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.” He illustrates this with an example to which most of us can relate:

Imagine a traveler who late in the day decides to cover two more stages before nightfall. Only four or five hours more, on a paved highway with relays of horses: it should be an easy trip. But at the next station he finds no fresh horses, or only poor ones; the country grows hilly, the road bad, night falls, and finally after many difficulties he is only too glad to reach a resting place with any kind of primitive accommodation. It is much the same in war. Countless minor incidents—the kind you can never really foresee—combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal.

Clausewitz refers to the sum of these minor incidents as “friction,” which he defines as “the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.” To put it another way, friction is whatever leads to the familiar gap between our expectations and reality, in any activity that is vulnerable to unforeseeable factors that interact with one another in unpredictable ways. In statistics, it’s known as epsilon, a catchall variable for the amount by which an observation differs from its expected value, and it can be most accurately defined by subtracting theory from practice and studying what remains: “Friction is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper.”

This sort of friction is visible everywhere, but it feels more heightened in war, which is part of why we insist on using military metaphors even in contexts in which they’re misleading or inappropriate. The war on drugs, the war on terror, and the war on cancer, to take just the first three that come to mind, are rallying cries that turn complicated issues into battles against a monolithic enemy that may not even exist, and they’re often used to score political points or to sell messy initiatives to the public. More generously, if we’re drawn to such analogies, it’s because war seems like a particularly stark manifestation of a phenomenon that we recognize in our everyday lives. “War is the province of friction,” Joe Haldeman writes in The Forever War, with a nod to “Chuck von Clausewitz,” who observes:   

If one has never personally experienced war, one cannot understand in what the difficulties constantly mentioned really consist, nor why a commander should need any brilliance and exceptional ability. Everything looks simple; the knowledge required does not look remarkable, the strategic options are so obvious that by comparison that simplest problem of higher mathematics has an impressive scientific dignity. Once war has actually been seen the difficulties become clear.

War, in other words, is the setting that reminds us most vividly of how little we can plan in advance, and how useless the obvious answers can be—which doesn’t prevent armchair generals from making the same mistake time and again.

As far as the solution is concerned, Clausewitz isn’t always helpful. He writes: “Iron willpower can overcome this friction; it pulverizes every obstacle, but of course it wears down the machine as well…The proud spirit’s firm will dominates the art of war as an obelisk dominates the town square on which all roads converge.” This is stirring, but not particularly convincing. More usefully, he adds that the only known lubricant for this kind of friction is experience, which teaches us to say: “This is possible, that is not.” Above all else, it requires that we enter every conflict with realistic expectations, as well as a quality of personality that is hard to pin down:

The good general must know friction in order to overcome it whenever possible, and in order not to expect a standard of achievement in his operations which this very friction makes impossible. Incidentally, it is a force that theory can never quite define. Even if it could, the development of instinct and tact would still be needed, a form of judgment much more necessary in an area littered by endless minor obstacles than in great, momentous questions, which are settled in solitary deliberation or in discussion with others.

I’ve spoken elsewhere about the importance of instinct, or intuition, but the term translated here as “tact” might be even more profound. Clausewitz never really defines it, but in German, Takt means something more like “pulse,” a unit of rhythm corresponding to the beat in music or the foot in poetry. (The German word for a conductor’s baton is Taktstock.) It might be more accurately rendered as “good timing,” which is central to both tactfulness and tactics—which are derived, respectively, from roots meaning “to touch” and “to arrange.”

And this constellation of meaning around the word “tact” comes as close as anything I know to capturing the state of mind that all human life demands. If war has generated more pages of discussion on the subject than any other activity, it’s partially because of the apparent scale and complexity involved. Clausewitz writes:

Each part [of the military machine] is composed of individuals, every one of whom retains his potential of friction…This tremendous friction, which cannot, as in mechanics, be reduced to a few points, is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance.

Just as weather forecasting has become the favorite subject of chaos theory, war is the arena in which such factors seem the most challenging—which may be an illusion in itself. A moment of reflection suggests that peace is even more complicated than war, and we fail to realize this because its complexity is so pervasive that we take it for granted. The consequences for faulty decisions are also less immediate. Economics and sociology, the two leading academic disciplines devoted to making sense of human behavior in peacetime, can be wrong for decades without anyone taking the blame. War, at least, seems to enforce a punishing form of natural selection, even as it allows us to attribute the results of chance to the genius of generals, or to any one of a multitude of “decisive” factors, depending on what point we want to make. Even “friction” is a kind of x factor, and its explanatory power derives from the fact that it doesn’t try to explain anything. If friction is the question, tact is the answer. This may not seem to tell us much. But we also can’t afford to forget it.

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May 31, 2017 at 9:30 am

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Quote of the Day

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Today everyone innovates. Deliberately, methodically. And the innovations are deliberately and methodically made startling. Only it now turns out not to be true that all startling art is necessarily innovative or new art…It has become apparent that art can have a startling impact without really being or saying anything startling—or new. The character itself of being startling, spectacular, or upsetting has become conventionalized, part of safe good taste.

Clement Greenberg, “Avant Garde Attitudes”

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May 31, 2017 at 7:30 am

Avocado’s number

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Earlier this month, you may have noticed a sudden flurry of online discussion around avocado toast. It was inspired by a remark by a property developer named Tim Gurner, who said to the Australian version of 60 Minutes: “When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocados for nineteen bucks and four coffees at four dollars each.” Gurner’s statement, which was fairly bland and unmemorable in itself, was promptly transformed into the headline “Millionaire to Millennials: Stop Buying Avocado Toast If You Want to Buy a Home.” From there, it became the target of widespread derision, with commentators pointing out that if owning a house seems increasingly out of reach for many young people, it has more to do with rising real estate prices, low wages, and student loans than with their irresponsible financial habits. And the fact that such a forgettable sentiment became the focal point for so much rage—mostly from people who probably didn’t see the original interview—implies that it merely catalyzed a feeling that had been building for some time. Millennials, it’s fair to say, have been getting it from both sides. When they try to be frugal by using paper towels as napkins, they’re accused of destroying the napkin industry, but they’re also scolded over spending too much at brunch. They’re informed that their predicament is their own fault, unless they’re also being idealized as “joyfully engaged in a project of creative destruction,” as Laura Marsh noted last year in The New Republic. “There’s nothing like being told precarity is actually your cool lifestyle choice,” Marsh wrote, unless it’s being told, as the middle class likes to maintain to the poor, that financial stability is only a matter of hard work and a few small sacrifices.

It also reflects an overdue rejection of what used to be called the latte factor, as popularized by the financial writer David Bach in such books as Smart Women Finish Rich. As Helaine Olen writes in Slate:

Bach calculated that eschewing a five-dollar daily bill at Starbucks—because who, after all, really needs anything at Starbucks?—for a double nonfat latte and biscotti with chocolate could net a prospective saver $150 a month, or $2,000 a year. If she then took that money and put it all in stocks that Bach, ever an optimist, assumed would grow at an average annual rate of eleven percent a year, “chances are that by the time she reached sixty-five, she would have more than $2 million sitting in her account.”

There are a lot of flaws in this argument. Bach rounds up his numbers, assumes an unrealistic rate of return, and ignores taxes and inflation. Most problematic of all is his core assumption that tiny acts of indulgence are what prevent the average investor from accumulating wealth. In fact, big, unpredictable risk factors and fixed expenses play a much larger role, as Olen points out:

Buying common luxury items wasn’t the issue for most Americans. The problem was the fixed costs, the things that are difficult to cut back on. Housing, health care, and education cost the average family seventy-five percent of their discretionary income in the 2000s. The comparable figure in 1973: fifty percent. Indeed, studies demonstrate that the quickest way to land in bankruptcy court was not by buying the latest Apple computer but through medical expenses, job loss, foreclosure, and divorce.

It turns out that incremental acts of daily discipline are powerless in the face of systemic factors that have a way of erasing all your efforts—and this applies to more than just personal finance. Back when I was trying to write my first novel, I was struck by the idea that if I managed to write just one hundred words every day, I’d have a manuscript in less than three years. I was so taken by this notion that I wrote it down on an index card and stuck it to my bathroom mirror. That was over a decade ago, and while I can’t quite remember how long I stuck with that regimen, it couldn’t have been more than a few weeks. Novels, I discovered, aren’t written a hundred words at a time, at least not in a fashion that can be banked in the literary equivalent of a penny jar. They’re the product of hard work combined with skills that can only be developed after a period of sustained engagement. There’s a lot of trial and error involved, and you can only arrive at a workable system through the kind of experience that comes from addressing issues of craft with maximal attention. Luck and timing also play a role, particularly when it comes navigating the countless pitfalls that lie between a finished draft and its publication. In finance, we’re inclined to look at a historical return series and attribute it after the fact to genius, rather than to variables that are out of our hands. Similarly, every successful novel creates its own origin story. We naturally underestimate the impact of factors that can’t be credited to individual initiative and discipline. As a motivational tool, there’s a place for this kind of myth. But if novels were written using the literary equivalent of the latte factor, we’d have more novels, just as we’d have more millionaires.

Which isn’t to say that routine doesn’t play a crucial role. My favorite piece of writing advice ever is what David Mamet writes in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

A lot of writing comes down to figuring out what to do on any given morning—but it doesn’t mean doing the same thing each day. Knowing what achievable steps are appropriate at every stage is as important here as it is anywhere else. You can acquire this knowledge as systematically or haphazardly as you like, but you can also do everything right and still fail in the end. (If we define failure as spending years on a novel that will never be published, it’s practically a requirement of the writer’s education.) Books on writing and personal finance continue to take up entire shelves at bookstores, and they can sound very much alike. In “The Writer’s Process,” a recent, and unusually funny, humor piece in The New Yorker, Hallie Cantor expertly skewers their tone—“I give myself permission to write a clumsy first draft and vigorously edit it later”—and concludes: “Anyway, I guess that’s my process. It’s all about repetition, really—doing the same thing every single day.” We’ve all heard this advice. I’ve been guilty of it myself. But when you don’t take the big picture into account, it’s just a load of smashed avocado.

Quote of the Day

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Everyone who has seriously investigated a novel question, who has really interrogated nature with a view to a distinct answer, will bear me out in saying that it requires intense and sustained effort of imagination. The relations of sequence among the phenomena must be seen; they are hidden; they can only be seen mentally; a thousand suggestions rise before the mind, but they are recognized as old suggestions, or as inadequate to reveal what is sought; the experiments by which the problem may be solved have to be imagined; and to imagine a good experiment is as difficult as to invent a good fable, for we must have distinctly present—clear mental vision—the known qualities and relations of all the objects, and must see what will be the effect of introducing some new qualifying agent. If any one thinks this is easy, let him try it.

George Henry Lewes, The Principles of Success in Literature

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May 30, 2017 at 7:30 am

Beyond life and death

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Note: This post discusses plot points from every incarnation of Twin Peaks.

A few days ago, I went back and rewatched the last scene of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. I’ve never quite been able to work myself up to the belief that this movie is some kind of lost masterpiece, and I think that my true opinion of it may be closer to that of David Thomson, who called it “the worst thing [David] Lynch has done—and, I trust, the least necessary or sincere.” Set it alongside Blue Velvet, or even Mulholland Drive, and it shrivels at once into a collection of superficial notions, precious conceits, and inadvisable ideas. Yet it has also been a part of my life to an extent that puts most better films to shame. I’ve always loved the soundtrack, or, more precisely, about half of it, which I knew by heart years before I saw the movie. When I got a video store membership in college, back in the days when this actually meant picking up and returning physical videocassettes, it was literally the first tape I rented. I watched it alone in my dorm’s common room, and I got sick later that night, which may not have been the film’s fault, but has always colored my impressions of it. That was half a lifetime ago, and I haven’t watched it from start to finish in over fifteen years, but it still feels like a movie that I’ve only recently discovered. A lot of it has faded, perhaps mercifully, but I still remember pieces of it—mostly the sequences that have the least to do with the original series—as vividly as if I’d seen them only yesterday. And on a stylistic and tonal level, it’s clearly the closest precursor to the revival of Twin Peaks.

The only problem with taking Fire Walk With Me as a spiritual prequel to the third season is that final scene, which just doesn’t fit. It comes right after what must be one of the ugliest and most depressing sequences ever to conclude a movie that got a wide theatrical release. Laura Palmer is bound, tortured, and killed by her father, in excruciating detail, and it seems both gratuitous and obligatory: Leland lays out the clues—the locket, the plastic sheet—as dutifully as if he’s dressing the set for the production crew, and he reports to his superiors to be milked for all the pain and suffering that has just been endured by the audience. If the film ended there, it would be unbearable, to the point where it would be hard to go back and enjoy the series on its own terms ever again. Instead, we’re treated to a strange, unspeakably moving coda in which Laura, joined by Cooper, has a vision of an angel in the Black Lodge, set to Angelo Badalamenti’s gorgeous instrumental “The Voice of Love,” followed by a fade to white. The implication is that Laura has gone on to a better place. On some level, it’s a concession to the viewer, who has just been forced to watch one of the bleakest hours of cinema imaginable, but it also feels true to its director, half of whose movies end with a similarly hokey but heartfelt moment of transcendence. I may not entirely believe in the golden, glowing images that open and close Blue Velvet, but I think that Lynch does, and they’ve always felt closer to his deepest sensibilities than the despairing endings of Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive.

It doesn’t take long for the new season to throw it out. When we’re reunited with Laura, or her doppelgänger, she’s still in the Black Lodge, visibly aged but mouthing the same words as always, and when Cooper tells her that Laura Palmer is dead, she chillingly replies: “I am dead. Yet I live.” She removes her face like a mask, revealing a glowing void, and when we last see her, she’s sucked upward, screaming, into space. There’s no angel there, either. It’s enough to make the ending of Fire Walk With Me seem like an apocryphal footnote, discarded as soon as it was no longer useful, in the manner of a show that has always assembled itself out of its own rough drafts. (It’s worth remembering that Cooper’s first visit to the Black Lodge was originally the ending to the European cut of the film, which was repurposed as a confusing vision that looked exactly like what it really was—a deleted scene recycled as a dream sequence, complete with clumsy cuts back to Cooper tossing and turning on his pillow.) You could even argue that the scene is no longer necessary. When Fire Walk With Me first came out, it felt like the climax of a frustratingly long wait, and it’s startling to realize that it premiered at Cannes less than a year after the final episode aired. These days, viewers wait longer between the regular seasons of your average prestige drama. The series and its movie prequel were conceived as a continuous whole, but after Kyle MacLachlan declined to come back for anything but a cameo, Lynch and Mark Frost were unable to tie up any of the tangled threads that the show had left unresolved. Instead, they gave us Laura and the angel, which doubled as an emotional farewell to Twin Peaks itself.

For more than twenty years, that was the last image of the show that we’d ever have. We didn’t know what happened to the characters, but we had reason to hope that they would find peace. Now we’re being given eighteen more hours, which seem likely to provide more information about what happened next than we ever wanted, even if much of it is yet to come. Even after the third and fourth episodes, there’s a sense of the pieces being laboriously being slid into place: we’ve seen a lot of familiar faces, but they often just deliver a line and then disappear, as if they were among the wax figures on display in the Black Lodge—and the fact that several of the actors have since passed away makes their reappearances seem even more ghostly. (This isn’t to say that there haven’t been a lot of incidental pleasures. The latest episodes have been bewildering, but they also serve as a reminder of how funny Twin Peaks can be. My favorite moment so far hasn’t been Michael Cera’s Wally Brando, but the way in which Robert Forster turns away without a word at the end of the scene, as if even he realizes that there isn’t anything else to say.) Eventually, we seem destined to learn a lot more about what Shelley, Bobby, James, Audrey, and the rest have been doing, and those reunions will feel more bittersweet than they would have if a quarter of a century hadn’t elapsed. As Frost warned us, this is going to be a season about aging and death, a remarkable epilogue for a series that covered about a month of real time in its original run. But I have a hunch that its ending will be very much like the one that we’ve already seen. In the premiere, Leland whispers to Cooper: “Find Laura.” I think he will. And I suspect that we’ll see the angel again.

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2017 at 9:35 am

Quote of the Day

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In the summer of 1937, I played the Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto at what was then called the Rosebowl Concerts, in Portland, Oregon. The conductor was Basil Cameron. Before the concert he carefully instructed me about doing something special onstage at the end of the second movement…Basil Cameron said to me: “You know, Isaac, let me tell you how to make a success today and in your future years. When you come to this part, look up toward the heavens as if you were playing to the angels, and the whole audience will applaud.” I don’t recall if I looked up appropriately, but I do remember the advice.

Isaac Stern and Chaim Potok, My First 79 Years

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May 29, 2017 at 7:30 am

The logic of birdsong

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My favorite theory is that the structure of a bird song is determined by what will carry best in its home environment. Let’s say, you have one bird that lives in a coniferous forest and another in an oak forest. Since the song is passed down by tradition, then let’s say there’s an oak woodland dialect and coniferous woodland dialect. If you reproduce the sounds, you will find that the oak sound carries farther in an oak forest than it does in a coniferous forest, and vice versa…

[Bird songs] have an exposition of a theme. Very often, they have variations in theme reminiscent of canonical variations like Mozart’s Sonata in A major, where you have theme and variation. And eventually, they come back to the original theme. They probably do it for the same reasons that humans compose sonatas. Both humans and birds get bored with monotony. And to counter monotony, you always have to do something new to keep the brain aroused.

Luis F. Baptista, in an interview with the New York Times

Written by nevalalee

May 28, 2017 at 7:30 am

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