Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Immanuel Kant

Who we are in the moment

with 59 comments

Jordan Horowitz and Barry Jenkins

By now, you’re probably sick of hearing about what happened at the Oscars. I’m getting a little tired of it, too, even though it was possibly the strangest and most riveting two minutes I’ve ever seen on live television. It left me feeling sorry for everyone involved, but there are at least three bright spots. The first is that it’s going to make a great case study for somebody like Malcolm Gladwell, who is always looking for a showy anecdote to serve as a grabber opening for a book or article. So many different things had to go wrong for it to happen—on the levels of design, human error, and simple dumb luck—that you can use it to illustrate just about any point you like. A second silver lining is that it highlights the basically arbitrary nature of all such awards. As time passes, the list of Best Picture winners starts to look inevitable, as if Cimarron and Gandhi and Chariots of Fire had all been canonized by a comprehensible historical process. If anything, the cycle of inevitability is accelerating, so that within seconds of any win, the narratives are already locking into place. As soon as La La Land was announced as the winner, a story was emerging about how Hollywood always goes for the safe, predictable choice. The first thing that Dave Itzkoff, a very smart reporter, posted on the New York Times live chat was: “Of course.” Within a couple of minutes, however, that plot line had been yanked away and replaced with one for Moonlight. And the fact that the two versions were all but superimposed onscreen should warn us against reading too much into outcomes that could have gone any number of ways.

But what I want to keep in mind above all else is the example of La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz, who, at a moment of unbelievable pressure, simply said: “I’m going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight.” It was the best thing that anybody could have uttered under those circumstances, and it tells us a lot about Horowitz himself. If you were going to design a psychological experiment to test a subject’s reaction under the most extreme conditions imaginable, it’s hard to think of a better one—although it might strike a grant committee as possibly too expensive. It takes what is undoubtedly one of the high points of someone’s life and twists it instantly into what, if perhaps not the worst moment, at least amounts to a savage correction. Everything that the participants onstage did or said, down to the facial expressions of those standing in the background, has been subjected to a level of scrutiny worthy of the Zapruder film. At the end of an event in which very little occurs that hasn’t been scripted or premeditated, a lot of people were called upon to figure out how to act in real time in front of an audience of hundreds of millions. It’s proverbial that nobody tells the truth in Hollywood, an industry that inspires insider accounts with titles like Hello, He Lied and Which Lie Did I Tell? A mixup like the one at the Oscars might have been expressly conceived as a stress test to bring out everyone’s true colors. Yet Horowitz said what he did. And I suspect that it will do more for his career than even an outright win would have accomplished.

Kellyanne Conway

It also reminds me of other instances over the last year in which we’ve learned exactly what someone thinks. When we get in trouble for a remark picked up on a hot mike, we often say that it doesn’t reflect who we really are—which is just another way of stating that it doesn’t live up to the versions of ourselves that we create for public consumption. It’s far crueler, but also more convincing, to argue that it’s exactly in those unguarded, unscripted moments that our true selves emerge. (Freud, whose intuition on such matters was uncanny, was onto something when he focused on verbal mistakes and slips of the tongue.) The justifications that we use are equally revealing. Maybe we dismiss it as “locker room talk,” even if it didn’t take place anywhere near a locker room. Kellyanne Conway excused her reference to the nonexistent Bowling Green Massacre by saying “I misspoke one word,” even though she misspoke it on three separate occasions. It doesn’t even need to be something said on the spur of the moment. At his confirmation hearing for the position of ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman apologized for an opinion piece he had written before the election: “These were hurtful words, and I deeply regret them. They’re not reflective of my nature or my character.” Friedman also said that “the inflammatory rhetoric that accompanied the presidential campaign is entirely over,” as if it were an impersonal force that briefly took possession of its users and then departed. We ask to be judged on our most composed selves, not the ones that we reveal at our worst.

To some extent, that’s a reasonable request. I’ve said things in public and in private that I’ve regretted, and I wouldn’t want to be judged solely on my worst moments as a writer or parent. At a time when a life can be ruined by a single tweet, it’s often best to err on the side of forgiveness, especially when there’s any chance of misinterpretation. But there’s also a place for common sense. You don’t refer to an event as a “massacre” unless you really think of it that way or want to encourage others to do so. And we judge our public figures by what they say when they think that nobody is listening, or when they let their guard down. It might seem like an impossibly high standard, but it’s also the one that’s effectively applied in practice. You can respond by becoming inhumanly disciplined, like Obama, who in a decade of public life has said maybe five things he has reason to regret. Or you can react like Trump, who says five regrettable things every day and trusts that its sheer volume will reduce it to a kind of background noise—which has awakened us, as Trump has in so many other ways, to a political option that we didn’t even knew existed. Both strategies are exhausting, and most of us don’t have the energy to pursue either path. Instead, we’re left with the practical solution of cultivating the inner voice that, as I wrote last week, allows us to act instinctively. Kant writes: “Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law.” Which is another way of saying that we should strive to be the best version of ourselves at all times. It’s probably impossible. But it’s easier than wearing a mask.

Written by nevalalee

February 28, 2017 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Immanuel Kant

A good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes, because of its fitness to attain some proposed end, but only because of its volition…Even if, by a special disfavor of fortune…this will should wholly lack the capacity to carry out its purpose…then, like a jewel, it would still shine by itself, as something that has its full worth in itself. Usefulness or fruitlessness can neither add anything to this worth nor take anything away from it.

Immanuel KantGroundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

Written by nevalalee

January 18, 2017 at 7:30 am

What do you care what other people think?

with 2 comments

Immanuel Kant

We’re often told that we shouldn’t care about what other people think, but of course, we’re mindful of this all the time, and sometimes it leads to better behavior, in ways both large and small. When I’m noodling around on the ukulele, I find that my performance gets more focused when I imagine myself playing for an imaginary audience. Whenever I make an investment decision, I ask myself whether John Bogle—or, more accurately, the obsessively frugal index investors on the Bogleheads forum—would approve. More generally, when I stand back to look at my life, I often think about how it would seem to someone observing from the outside. I’m not sure who this hypothetical observer would be; perhaps, to take a page from Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar speech, it’s myself ten years from now. It’s a small thing, but I’d like to believe that it makes me slightly more civilized in my everyday actions. The existentialists believed that we should act as if what we did set the example for the rest of mankind, which only paraphrases what Kant said two centuries earlier: “Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law.”

Of course, that’s an impossibly high standard to maintain, so it’s usually enough to think in terms of one person, living or dead, real or imaginary, whose approval we’d like to earn. In writing, this takes the form of an ideal reader to whom all of our work is addressed, and I suspect that nearly every writer does this, whether consciously or not. In some ways, there’s no more fundamental decision in a writer’s life than the question of what reader you’re trying to impress. It shapes the projects you tackle and the style you employ, and it even influences some of your larger life decisions, like whether you want to end up in Iowa or New York. In practice, you’ll find yourself writing with an eye to real individuals with an ability to directly influence the outcome: trusted readers, prospective agents, busy editors. Over time, though, our ideal reader starts to resemble a composite of all these people, or a version of a particular person in our lives who may never see the draft we’re working on now. Ideally, this hypothetical reader should be benevolent but also a little scary, and the standards he or she sets for us should be at least somewhat higher than the ones we’d be willing to settle for ourselves.

Zadie Smith

Sometimes, our imaginary reader is another author whose work we admire, which can set insurmountable standards of its own: if we’re constantly wondering, as the critic James Wood says somewhere, what Flaubert would think of the sentence we’re writing, most of us wouldn’t get past the first paragraph. More commonly, this voice is often the product of the author’s own life story. In my own fiction, on the largest scale, I’m trying to live up to the standard that I set for myself when I was a child, back when nothing seemed more magical than the prospect of telling stories for a living. On a more granular level, I find that I’m often writing with an eye to the first writer who ever gave me useful feedback on a story. (I won’t mention him by name, but you can read more about him here.) Back when I was starting out, he read several of my stories and covered the pages with merciless notes and corrections, and although the process was draining, I’m convinced that it allowed me to get published five years earlier than I otherwise would. One of the stories he read, “Inversus,” was my first sale to Analog, and I don’t think it would have sold at all in its unedited form—which might well have discouraged me from pursuing that audience at all.

As a result, whenever I go over a draft, I’m frequently asking myself what he would think. It forces me to be harder on myself than I otherwise would: I’ll sometimes cross out entire pages and cut others to the bone, knowing that he’d react to what was currently there with a marginal question mark or even just a simple “No.” Of course, I’m really listening to my own inner voice, which has quietly taken on the qualities of the editors and readers I’ve come to respect. It’s a voice that is rightfully skeptical of everything it sees—as both Samuel Butler and Zadie Smith have pointed out, it’s a good habit to look over your work as if it were being read by an enemy—and I don’t think it would work nearly as well if I didn’t think of it as something external to me. I turn it off as much as I can during the first draft, but crank it up during the rewrite, when there’s no danger of fear or anxiety preventing me from at least finishing a manuscript. And although I try not to read published work with that voice, since there’s no changing what is already in print, I still sometimes sense it shaking its head when I go back to revisit a story, asking me: “Is that really what you wanted to say?”

Written by nevalalee

March 4, 2014 at 8:42 am

Kant vs. the trees

with one comment

Immanuel Kant

An extreme case is Kant, who would work in bed at certain times of the day with the blankets arranged around him in a way he had invented himself. While writing The Critique of Pure Reason he would concentrate on a tower visible from the window. When some trees grew up to hide the tower, he became frustrated, and the authorities of Königsberg cut down the trees so that he could continue his work.

—George F. Kneller, The Art and Science of Creativity

Written by nevalalee

June 30, 2013 at 9:50 am

%d bloggers like this: