Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Metamagical Themas

The astrological song

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Astrologers in Utriusque cosmi historia

Note: I’m taking a few days off for Thanksgiving, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on July 13, 2016.

In the novel Time Enough for Love, Robert A. Heinlein writes: “A touchstone to determine the actual worth of an ‘intellectual’—find out how he feels about astrology.” But what did he really mean? It might not be what you think. A while back, I was reading Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time in years when my attention was caught by a passage that I don’t remember noticing before. Jubal Harshaw and Dr. Mahmoud are discussing Allie Vesant, the astrologer who has joined the religious movement founded by the Martian Valentine Michael Smith. Jubal says, “Astrology is nonsense and you know it.” Dr. Mahmoud replies:

Oh, certainly. Even Allie knows it. And most astrologers are clumsy frauds. Nevertheless Allie practices it even more assiduously than she used to…It’s her device for grokking. It could be a pool of water, or a crystal ball, or the entrails of a chicken. The means do not matter. Mike has advised her to go on using the symbols she is used to…That she used as meaningless a symbol as astrology is beside the point. A rosary is meaningless, too…If it helps to turn your hat around during a poker game—then it helps. It is irrelevant that the hat has no magic powers.

I don’t always agree with Heinlein’s pronouncements, whether he delivers them himself or through the voice of an authorial surrogate, but I found myself nodding as I read this. And while astrology might seem like a strange beachhead from which to mount a defense of divination, its essential “meaninglessness,” as Heinlein seems to have sensed, is what makes it so potent an example.

The usual objection to astrology, aside from the point that there’s no known mechanism by which it could work, is that it does nothing but provide a few vague statements that users can interpret pretty much however they like. Here, for instance, is a reading that the psychologist Bertram Forer has prepared specifically for you:

Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, weary, and reserved. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept others’ opinions without satisfactory proof. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done right right thing. Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome or insecure on the inside…You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you.

As Douglas R. Hofstadter wrote, after quoting this “reading” in Metamagical Themas: “Pretty good fit, eh?” In reality, it was cobbled together by Forer from a paperback astrology book in 1948, and when he asked his students to rate the result—telling each of them that it was the result of a customized personality test—nearly all of them said that it was excellent. Which just demonstrates, if we needed the reminder, that newsstand astrology offers up little more than a series of platitudes that anybody can fit to his or her own situation.

The signs of the zodiac

But this isn’t a bug—it’s a feature. When we read a horoscope like this, what we’re doing, essentially, is taking a few generic sentences and asking ourselves: “How is this statement like me? In what sense is my situation like this?” Like it or not, this can lead to interesting insights, as long as you’re willing to look for them. Going to a daily horoscope site, for instance, I find:

Your slow and steady approach may need a sharp kick in the pants today, Gemini. Don’t withhold your opinions. This is a time to get it all out on the table, despite the tension that it may cause. Strong forces are at work, so don’t be surprised if things get a bit more heated than you’re used to. The fact is that incredible breakthroughs can be made through disagreements among different types of people.

If you insist on treating astrology as a way to predict the future, there isn’t much to go on. But if you’re more inclined to look at it for clues about how to approach the present, there’s something to be said for it, provided that we approach it with the right attitude, and remember that any string of words can be used to trigger a useful train of thought. Reading my horoscope, my natural tendency is to think: “Hmmm…I guess there’s a sense in which I’ve been holding back on that problem that has been bugging me. Maybe I should get the ball rolling.” And if I’m lucky, I’ll come up with a new angle on the situation, especially if the connection between the reading and my circumstances isn’t immediately obvious. (Along these lines, I’ve often thought a book like The Secret Language of Birthdays would be a valuable tool for filling out a fictional character in a story. You’d pick a profile at random, and ask yourself: “How, exactly, is my character like this?”)

As Heinlein points out, the means of grokking doesn’t necessarily matter. Astrology isn’t any less useful a way of generating random associations than, say, Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, even if the quality of the material leaves something to be desired. It might be wiser, in fact, to cast your horoscope yourself, which would create the kind of mental blank space that I’ve elsewhere found in tarot cards. In my post on the subject from a few years ago, I wrote:

It results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it. It’s a variation of what we do when we write notes to ourselves, which are really dispatches from a past version of ourself to the future, even if it’s only a few seconds or minutes away. The nice thing about tarot is that it concretizes the problem in a form that’s out of our control, forcing us to take the extra step of mapping the issues we’re mulling over onto the array of symbols that the deck has generated. If we’re patient, inventive, or imaginative enough, we can map it so closely that the result seems foreordained, a form of note-taking that obliges us to collaborate with something larger.

And although I haven’t tried it, it seems that casting a horoscope, properly understood, would provide many of the same benefits: the arrangement and interpretation of arbitrary symbols, according to a preexisting system, is a great way to do some serious thinking. The future isn’t in the stars—but if they nudge us in new directions in the present, they can’t be entirely useless. And I suspect that even Heinlein would agree.

Written by nevalalee

November 24, 2017 at 9:00 am

The astrological song

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Astrologers in Utriusque cosmi historia

A touchstone to determine the actual worth of an “intellectual”—find out how he feels about astrology.

—Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

But what did Heinlein really mean by that? Frankly, it might not be what you think. Yesterday, I was reading Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time in years when my attention was caught by a passage that I don’t remember ever noticing before. Jubal Harshaw and Dr. Mahmoud are discussing Alexandra Vesant, or Allie, the astrologer who has become a member of the Martian religious movement founded by Valentine Michael Smith. Jubal says, “Astrology is nonsense and you know it.” Dr. Mahmoud replies:

Oh, certainly. Even Allie knows it. And most astrologers are clumsy frauds. Nevertheless Allie practices it even more assiduously than she used to…It’s her device for grokking. It could be a pool of water, or a crystal ball, or the entrails of a chicken. The means do not matter. Mike has advised her to go on using the symbols she is used to…That she used as meaningless a symbol as astrology is beside the point. A rosary is meaningless, too…If it helps to turn your hat around during a poker game—then it helps. It is irrelevant that the hat has no magic powers.

I don’t always agree with Heinlein’s pronouncements, whether delivered through the voice of an authorial surrogate or not, but I found myself nodding as I read this. And while astrology might seem like a strange beachhead from which to mount a defense of divination, its very “meaninglessness,” as Heinlein must have sensed, is what makes it so potent an example.

The usual objection to astrology, aside from the point that there’s no known mechanism by which it could work, is that it does nothing but provide a few vague statements that users can interpret pretty much however they like. Here, for instance, is a reading that the psychologist Bertram Forer has prepared specifically for you:

Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, weary, and reserved. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept others’ opinions without satisfactory proof. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done right right thing. Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome or insecure on the inside…You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you.

As Douglas R. Hofstadter wrote, after quoting this “reading” in Metamagical Themas: “Pretty good fit, eh?” In reality, it was cobbled together by Forer from a paperback astrology book in 1948, and when he asked his students to rate the result—telling each of them that it was the result of a customized personality test—nearly all of them said that it was excellent. Which all just demonstrates, as if we needed a reminder, that astrology offers up little more than a series of platitudes that anybody can fit to his or her own situation.

The signs of the zodiac

This is true enough. But this isn’t a bug—it’s a feature. When we read a horoscope like the one above, what we’re doing, essentially, is taking a few generic sentences and asking ourselves: “How is this statement like me? In what sense is my situation like this?” And like it or not, this can lead to an interesting insight, as long as you’re willing to look for it. Going to a daily horoscope site, for instance, I find:

Your slow and steady approach may need a sharp kick in the pants today, Gemini. Don’t withhold your opinions. This is a time to get it all out on the table, despite the tension that it may cause. Strong forces are at work, so don’t be surprised if things get a bit more heated than you’re used to. The fact is that incredible breakthroughs can be made through disagreements among different types of people.

If you insist on treating astrology as a way to predict the future, there isn’t much to go on. But if you’re more inclined to look at it for clues about how to approach the present, there’s something to be said for it, provided that we approach it with the right attitude, and remember that any string of words can be used to trigger a useful train of thought. Reading my horoscope, my natural tendency is to think: “Hmmm…I guess there’s a sense in which I’ve been holding back on that problem that has been bugging me. Maybe I should get the ball rolling.” And if I’m lucky, I’ll come up with a new angle on the situation, especially if the connection between the reading and my circumstances isn’t immediately obvious. (On a similar level, I’ve often thought a book like The Secret Language of Birthdays would be a valuable tool for filling out a fictional character in a story. You’d just pick a profile at random, and ask yourself: “How, exactly, is my character like this?”)

As Heinlein points out, the means don’t matter. Astrology isn’t any less useful a way of generating random associations than, say, Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, even if the quality of the material leaves something to be desired. It might be wiser, in fact, to cast your horoscope yourself, which would create the kind of mental blank space that I’ve elsewhere found in tarot cards. In my post on the subject from a few years ago, I wrote:

It results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it. It’s a variation of what we do when we write notes to ourselves, which are really dispatches from a past version of ourself to the future, even if it’s only a few seconds or minutes away. The nice thing about tarot is that it concretizes the problem in a form that’s out of our control, forcing us to take the extra step of mapping the issues we’re mulling over onto the array of symbols that the deck has generated. If we’re patient, inventive, or imaginative enough, we can map it so closely that the result seems foreordained, a form of note-taking that obliges us to collaborate with something larger.

And although I haven’t tried it, it seems that casting a horoscope, properly understood, would provide many of the same benefits: the arrangement and interpretation of arbitrary symbols, according to a preexisting system, is a great way to do some thinking. The future isn’t in the stars—but if they nudge us into new directions of thought about the present, they can’t be entirely useless. And I think Heinlein would agree.

The art of serendipity

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Douglas R. Hofstadter

Serendipitous observation and quick exploration of potential are vital elements in [creativity]. What goes hand in hand with the willingness to playfully explore a serendipitous connection is the willingness to censor or curtail an exploration that seems to be leading nowhere. It is the flip side of the risk-taking aspect of serendipity. It’s fine to be reminded of something, to see an analogy or a vague connection, and it’s fine to try to map one situation or concept onto another in the hopes of making something novel emerge—but you’ve also got to be willing and able to sense when you’ve lost the gamble, and to cut your losses…

Frantic striving to be original will usually get you nowhere. Far better to relax and let your perceptual system and your category system work together unconsciously, occasionally coming up with unbidden connections. At that point, you—the lucky owner of the mind in question—can seize the opportunity and follow out the proffered hint. This view of creativity has the conscious mind being quite passive, content to sit back and wait for the unconscious to do its remarkable broodings and brewings.

The most reliable kinds of genuine insight come not from vague reminding experiences…but from strong analogies in which one experience can be mapped onto another in a highly pleasing way. The tighter the fit, the deeper the insight, generally speaking. When two things can both be seen as instances of one abstract phenomenon, it is a very exciting discovery. Then ideas about either one can be borrowed in thinking about the other, and that sloshing-about of activity may greatly illumine both at once…

A mapping-recipe that often yields interesting results is projection of oneself into a situation: “How would it be for me?”

Douglas R. Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2016 at 8:40 am

The golden braid of Douglas Hofstadter

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geb

When I was growing up, if needed something new to read, I’d just head for the garage. My parents owned hundreds, possibly thousands of books, and there were never enough shelves for them all, so the same dozen cardboard boxes followed us from house to house, rarely, if ever, being unpacked. (Some of them are still there, untouched, after twenty years, and a visit to my parents’ house isn’t complete before I’ve had a chance to go through them yet again.) Rummaging through these boxes was like browsing through a great, if eclectic, used bookshop, and the quality of serendipity I love in such stores was multiplied tenfold—I just never knew what I was going to find. Quite a few of those discoveries have probably ended up on my own shelves, absorbed by now into the rest of my library, to the point where I no longer remember where they came from. And my inner life has been enormously shaped by the authors I found there, which only serves to illustrate the point that if there are books anywhere in a house, a true reader will always find them, like a junkie in search of a fix.

One book in particular sticks in my mind, if only because it influenced so much of what came afterward. When I was in seventh grade, my father was browsing in a carton of books—I can’t remember why—and came up with a copy of Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themes, which he said I might like, mostly because of Hofstader’s discussion of the Rubik’s Cube. I liked those chapters a lot, but loved the rest of the book even more, and it’s followed me on every move I’ve made since—I’m looking at my original copy as I write this. It’s pretty worn and tattered by now, and just leafing through it takes me back, as much as any book I own, to the period of ferocious reading that I wrote about yesterday. Metamagical Themas, a collection of Hofstadter’s columns for Scientific American, led me inevitably to Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and The Mind’s I, and what I found there dazzled me so much that I ended up dedicating my school project that year—an autobiography, printed on dot matrix paper, that ran a hundred pages or more—to Hofstadter himself.

Douglas R. Hofstadter

Who was this guy, anyway? Then as now, Hofstadter was a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University in Bloomington, and his work was my first exposure to a kind of writing that I’ve since come to love passionately: the eccentric, unabashedly nerdy attempt to fuse science and the humanities into something that isn’t quite either, but draws on the best qualities of both. Even now, I don’t think I’ve quite made it through every page of Gödel, Escher, Bach, but what I found there, and in Hofstadter’s other work, has stuck with me ever since. Among other things, he was my first introduction to Zen, self-reference, the Codex Seraphianus, the Skeptical Inquirer, Alan Turing, Magritte, Nabokov’s notes on Eugene Onegin, James Falen’s translation of the same, and countless other authors and concepts I’ve been mulling over ever since, not to mention the larger subjects of consciousness and artificial intelligence. The range of his references is so rich, in fact, that he was later compelled to write another—and somewhat less interesting—book, I Am a Strange Loop, to clarify what he was trying to say in the first place.

I discovered Hofstadter in the same year as Umberto Eco, and they’ve acted on my life in similar ways, one on the side of science, the other of literature. (From an intellectual standpoint, it’s likely that ninety percent of what I care about as an adult was formed in middle school, although those aren’t exactly years I’d like to revisit.) Both are polymaths who opened me up to surprising influences and countless other books, and if my decision to major in classics in college was ultimately due to Eco, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take also a long hard look at cognitive neuroscience. Since then, I’ve become more aware of Hofstader’s limitations—his own translation of Eugene Onegin is a misguided vanity project of the worst kind—but I remain in awe of his brilliance and intellectual omnivorousness. The book of his I treasure the most is Le Ton beau de Marot, which came out when I was a college freshman, leading to many late evenings in my dorm, with my roommate and I trading rival translations of “Ma Mignonne.” There are other writers I’ve come to love more, but few who fill me with such gratitude. If you haven’t read his stuff, you might want to give it a try—he might change your life, too.

Written by nevalalee

February 28, 2013 at 9:50 am

The art of shaving

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A few days ago, I quoted the unnamed physicist who told Wolfgang Köhler that scientists in his profession speak of “the three B’s”—the bus, the bath, and the bed—as the places where ideas tend to unexpectedly emerge. In my own case, two other activities are especially conducive to serendipitous thinking. The first, as my hero Colin Fletcher knew, was walking. While I don’t often have a chance to go on long hikes of the kind Fletcher wrote about so unforgettably, even a short walk to the grocery store has a way of working out whatever story problem I’m trying to solve at the moment. (Although I’ve also found that if I have music playing on my headphones, as I usually do, it tends to drown out that inner voice, which is a reminder that it’s sometimes best to leave the iPod at home.)

My other favorite activity is shaving. I’m not quite sure what it is, but I’ve had more good ideas at the bathroom sink than at any other location in the house. And I’m not the only one. In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes writes: “A close friend of Einstein’s has told me that many of the physicist’s greatest ideas came to him so suddenly that he had to move the blade of the straight razor very carefully each morning, lest he cut himself with surprise.” And while I’ve never cut myself, at least not for that reason, I’ve certainly been startled by unexpected insights. The most stunning moment, by far, is when I realized the true identity and motive of the killer in The Icon Thief, for a murder that I had already described with an eye toward a different suspect entirely. It’s one of my favorite memories as a writer.

Not every profession lends itself to thinking while shaving. For poets, it can pose a problem, as A.E. Housman notes. I’ve quoted him on this before, but since it’s one of my favorite pieces of writing, I see no reason not to quote him again:

One of these symptoms [that poetry produces in us] was described in connexion with another object by Eliphaz the Temanite: “A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.” Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.

This is such an effective indicator of true poetry, by the way, that Robert Graves proposes it as the definitive test in The White Goddess, although authors seem divided on its consequences for a morning shave. In Pale Fire, Nabokov writes, in the voice of the poet John Shade:

                    …Better than any soap
Is the sensation for which poets hope
When inspiration and its icy blaze,
The sudden image, the immediate phrase
Over the skin a triple ripple send
Making the little hairs all stand on end
As in the enlarged animated scheme
Of whiskers moved when held up by Our Cream.

Later in the same novel, the mad commentator Charles Kinbote points out the inconsistency between Shade and Housman’s accounts, and notes that since Housman “certainly used an Ordinary Razor, and John Shade an ancient Gillette, the discrepancy may have been due to the use of different instruments.” Clearly, a controlled experiment is required, perhaps with a side investigation into Douglas R. Hofstadter’s self-referential number P :

P is, for each individual, the number of minutes per month that that person spends thinking about the number P. For me, the value of P seems to average out at about 2. I certainly wouldn’t want it to go much above that! I find that it crosses my mind most often when I’m shaving.

After years of experimentation, my own routine has settled, rather surprisingly, on an old-fashioned shaving brush and cake of shaving soap. I was partially inspired by Updike’s description of Harry’s shaving regimen in Rabbit is Rich (“He still uses a rusty old two-edge safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar of soap is handy”) but mostly from simple frugality: a cake of shaving soap is cheap and lasts close to a year, at least the way I use it. My razor, at the moment, is a Gillette Sensor, the blade’s lifetime extended by occasional stropping on a pair of jeans. (It really seems to work, although reports of blades lasting for half a year or more are probably atypical. Two weeks is a good number for me.)

All in all, it’s a modest routine, but shaving, I’ve increasingly come to understand, is one of life’s joys, even with the simplest of tools. And it’s in those unassuming moments, when one’s mind is free to wander, that the best ideas often arrive. I think I’m going to try it right now.

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