Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

The lives of the robots

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Jeffrey Wright on Westworld

Note: Spoilers follow for the Westworld episode “The Stray.”

There’s a clever moment in the third episode of Westworld when Teddy, the clean-cut gunslinger played by James Marsden, is finally given a backstory. Teddy has spoken vaguely of a guilty secret in his past, but when he’s pressed for the details, he doesn’t elaborate. That’s the mark of a good hero. As William Goldman points out in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell?, protagonists need to have mystery, and when you give them a sob story, here’s what happens:

They make [him] a wimp. They make him a loser. He’s just another whiny asshole who went to pieces when the gods pissed on him. “Oh, you cannot know the depth of my pain” is what that seems to be saying to the audience. Well, if I’m in that audience, what I think is this: Fuck you. I know people who are dying of cancer, I know people who are close to vegetables, and guess what—they play it as it lays.

Of course, we know that Teddy is really an android, and if he doesn’t talk about his past, it’s for good reason: as Dr. Ford, his creator, gently explains, the writers never bothered to give him one. With a few commands on a touchscreen, a complete backstory is uploaded into his system, and Teddy sets off on a doomed quest in pursuit of his old enemy, Wyatt, against whom he has sworn undying revenge. We don’t know how this plot thread ties into the rest of Dr. Ford’s plan, but we can only assume that it’s going somewhere—and it’s lucky for him that he had a convenient hero available to fill that role.

There are several levels of sly commentary here. When you’re writing a television show—or a series of novels—you want to avoid filling in anybody’s backstory for as long as possible. Part of the reason, as Goldman notes above, is to maintain a sense of mystery, and for the sake of narrative momentum, it makes sense to avoid dwelling on what happened before the story began. But it’s also a good idea to keep this information in your back pocket for when you really need it. If you know how to deploy it strategically, backstory can be very useful, and it can get you out of trouble or provide a targeted nudge when you need to push the plot in a particular direction. If you’re too explicit about it too soon, you narrow your range of options. (You also make it harder for viewers to project their own notions onto the characters, which is what Westworld, the theme park, is all about.) I almost wish that Westworld had saved this moment with Teddy for later in the show’s run, which would underline its narrative point. We’re only a third of the way through the first season, but within the world of the show itself, the park has been running for decades with the same generic storylines. Dr. Ford has a few ideas about how to shake things up, and Teddy is a handy blank slate. Television showrunners make that sort of judgment call all the time. In the internal logic of the park, this isn’t the first season, but more like its fifth or sixth, when a scripted drama tends to go off the rails, and the accumulation of years of backstory starts to feel like a burden.

James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood on Westworld

“The Stray,” in fact, is essentially about backstory, on the level both of the park and of the humans who are running it. Shortly after filling in the details of Teddy’s past, Dr. Ford does exactly the same thing for himself: he delivers a long, not entirely convincing monologue about a mysterious business partner, Arnold, who died in the park and was later removed from its corporate history. At the end of the speech, he looks at Bernard, his head of programming, and tells him that he knows how much his son’s death still haunts him. It’s a little on the nose, but I think it’s supposed to be. It makes us wonder if Bernard might unknowingly be a robot himself, a la Blade Runner, and whether his flashbacks of his son are just as artificial as Teddy’s memories of Wyatt. I hope that this isn’t the big twist, if only because it seems too obvious, but in a way, it doesn’t really matter. Bernard may or may not be a robot, but there’s no question that Bernard, Dr. Ford, and all the other humans in sight are characters on a show called Westworld, and whatever backstories they’ve been given by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are as calculated as the ones that the androids have received. Even if Bernard’s memories are “real,” we’re being shown them for a reason. (It helps that Dr. Ford and Bernard are played by Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright, two actors who are good at giving technically exquisite performances that draw subtle attention to their own artifice. Wright’s trademark whisper—he’s like a man of great passion who refuses to raise his voice—draws the viewer into a conspiracy with the actor, as if he’s letting us in on a secret.)

The trouble with this reading, of course, is that it allows us to excuse instances of narrative sloppiness under the assumption that the series is deliberately commenting on itself. I’m willing to see Dr. Ford’s speech about Arnold as a winking nod to the tendency of television shows to dispense backstory in big infodumps, but I’m less sure about the moment in which he berates a lab technician for covering up a robot’s naked body and slashes at the android’s face. It’s doesn’t seem like the Dr. Ford of the pilot, talking nostalgically to Old Bill in storage, and while we’re presumably supposed to see him as a man of contradictions, it feels more like a juxtaposition of two character beats that weren’t meant to be so close together. (I have a hunch that it also reflects Hopkins’s availability: the show seems to have him for about two scenes per episode, which means that it has to do in five minutes what might have been better done in ten.) Westworld, as you might expect from a show from one of the Nolan brothers, has more ideas than it knows how handle: it hurries past a reference to Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind so quickly that it’s as if the writers just want to let us know that they’ve read the book. But I still have faith in this show’s potential. When Teddy is ignominiously killed yet again by Wyatt’s henchmen, it forces Dolores to face the familiar attackers in her own storyline by herself—an ingenious way of getting her to where she needs to be, but also a reminder, I think, of how the choices that a storyteller makes in one place can have unexpected consequences somewhere else. It’s a risk that all writers take. And Westworld is playing the same tricky game as the characters whose stories it tells.

The divided self

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Julian Jaynes

Last night, I found myself browsing through one of the oddest and most interesting books in my library: Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I don’t know how familiar Jaynes’s work remains among educated readers these days—although the book is still in print after almost forty years—but it deserves to be sought out by anyone interested in problems of psychology, ancient literature, history, or creativity. Jayne’s central hypothesis, which still startles me whenever I type it, is that consciousness as we know it is a relatively recent development that emerged sometime within the last three thousand years, or after the dawn of language and human society. Before this, an individual’s decisions were motivated less by internal deliberation than by verbal commands that wandered from one part of the brain into another, and which were experienced as the hallucinated voice of a god or dead ancestor. Free will, as we conceive of it now, didn’t exist; instead, we acted in automatic, almost robotic obedience to those voices, which seemed to come from an entity outside ourselves.

As Richard Dawkins writes: “It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I’m hedging my bets.” It’s so outrageous, in fact, that its novelty has probably prevented it from being more widely known, even though Jaynes’s hypothesis seems more plausible—if no less shattering—the more you consider his argument. He notes, for instance, that when we read works like the Iliad, we’re confronted by a model of human behavior strikingly different from our own: as beautifully as characters like Achilles can express themselves, moments of action or decision are attributed to elements of an impersonal psychic apparatus, the thumos or the phrenes or the noos, that are less like our conception of the soul than organs of the body that stand apart from the self. (As it happens, much of my senior thesis as an undergraduate in classics was devoted to teasing out the meanings of the word noos as it appears in the poems of Pindar, who wrote at a much later date, but whose language still reflects that earlier tradition. I hadn’t read Jaynes at the time, but our conclusions aren’t that far apart.)

Sigmund Freud

The idea of a divided soul is an old one: Jaynes explains the Egyptian ka, or double, as a personification of that internal voice, which was sometimes perceived as that of the dead pharaoh. And while we’ve mostly moved on to a coherent idea of the self, or of a single “I,” the concept breaks down on close examination, to the point where the old models may deserve a second look. (It’s no accident that Freud circled back around to these divisions with the id, the ego, and the superego, which have no counterparts in physical brain structure, but are rather his attempt to describe human behavior as he observed it.) Even if we don’t go as far as such philosophers as Sam Harris, who denies that free will doesn’t exist at all, there’s no denying that much of our behavior arises from parts of ourselves that are inaccessible, even alien, to that “I.” We see this clearly in patterns of compulsive behavior, in the split in the self that appears in substance abuse or other forms of addiction, and, more benignly, in the moments of intuition or insight that creative artists feel as inspirations from outside—an interpretation that can’t be separated from the etymology of the word “inspiration” itself.`

And I’ve become increasingly convinced that coming to terms with that divided self is central to all forms of creativity, however we try to explain it. I’ve spoken before of rough drafts as messages from my past self, and of notetaking as an essential means of communication between those successive, or alternating, versions of who I am. A project like a novel, which takes many months to complete, can hardly be anything but a collaboration between many different selves, and that’s as true from one minute to the next as it is over the course of a year or more. Most of what I do as a writer is a set of tactics for forcing those different parts of the brain to work together, since no one faculty—the intuitive one that comes up with ideas, the architectural or musical one that thinks in terms of structure, the visual one that stages scenes and action, the verbal one that writes dialogue and description, and the boringly systematic one that cuts and revises—could come up with anything readable on its own. I don’t hear voices, but I’m respectful of the parts of myself I can’t control, even as I do whatever I can to make them more reliable. All of us do the same thing, whether we’re aware of it or not. And the first step to working with, and within, the divided self is acknowledging that it exists.

The magic feather of randomness

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Walt Disney's Dumbo

I’m very deliberate about my randomness. If there’s a single recurring thread that runs through this blog, it’s the search for ways to introduce chance into my creative process, which otherwise tends to be a little too rational and organized. Randomness plays a huge role in the early stages of any project: the choice of one subject over another is really just an educated guess as to what you’ll find engaging for the next few months or years of your life, and there have been times, looking back, when I realize that I clearly guessed wrong. Later on, though, it’s easy to go overboard with research and outlining, so I’m always looking for reliable tricks to shake up my thinking. For a while, I used the I Ching, before its vagueness started to get on my nerves, and my tattered copy of A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by Ted Hughes, combined with a random number generator, is still my favorite way of finding a random quote that might shed light on my current creative problems. And I’ve increasingly started to consult Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, to the point where I’ll often draw a card when faced with any dilemma at all, creative or otherwise.

But what happens when you don’t have your usual tools available? This came up during my recent trip to Spain, during which I hoped to keep thinking about the project I’m currently writing. I didn’t have room to pack the books I usually employ as a source of random thoughts, and I didn’t expect to have reliable access to the Internet. For a while, I thought about generating a few random tidbits in advance—by, say, drawing an Oblique Strategy card for each of the five scenes I was hoping to work on, then keeping them in reserve until I needed them—but I quickly realized that this was only avoiding the larger question. Randomness, like anything else in life, can be pursued too systematically, and I had fallen into the trap of relying on the same handful of tools, when randomness is really all around us. Julian Jaynes, writing on the subject in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicemeral Mind, talks about how he’ll deliberately trigger random chains of associations by looking out the window or around the room where he happens to be, and when it comes to inventing material for this blog, I’ll occasionally ask myself, while seated at my desk: “Is there an idea for a blog post that I can see right now without turning my head?”

Brian Eno

You can pull random inspiration from other works of culture, too, and not just the I Ching or Shakespeare. When I’m at the movies, I’m usually too immersed in, or at least distracted by, what’s happening on the screen to think usefully about anything else, but when I’m watching a television show or a play, my attention tends to wander from time to time. I’ve found it useful to have a plot problem or other issue in mind even before I sit down, so when I start to drift a little, my thoughts turn naturally to my work. And I’ve found that this is a really great time to daydream. I’m not talking about looking to works of art specifically for insights into storytelling, but merely as a source of words, images, and moments that can spark an unexpected train of thought. Last night, for example, I was watching television—all right, it was The Vampire Diaries—with a particular story problem still bothering me, and when one of the characters said “Close your eyes,” it gave me the answer I needed. You can get the same kind of mental jolt from a page of any random book or magazine. As Pliny says: “No book is so bad as to have nothing good in it.”

Which gets at an important point about randomness of the kind that I’ve long pursued. It isn’t an end in its own right, but a way of teaching yourself to find similar inspiration in the chance events that occur every day. To go back to the I Ching for a moment, it’s useful to remember that divination, at least in the Confucian sense, isn’t really about seeing the future: it’s about becoming aware of the influences that bind all of reality together at that moment, and which affect both the larger patterns of your own life and the way a few coins fall when tossed. Whether or not you believe in such synchronicity, it’s worth keeping in mind that the most valuable source of randomness is the whole world. Focused kinds of randomness have their place, but they’re really more like strength training for a deeper sense of awareness, one that helps us see a greater significance in the objects or people around us than they may initially seem to have on their own. That’s what writing, or any form of creative activity, is really about. External devices for finding randomness are a little like Dumbo’s magic feather: they’re comforting, and they allow us to take leaps that we otherwise might avoid, but the real magic is in the act of seeing.

Right brain, wrong brain

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The left and right hemispheres of the brain

On this blog, I’ll often mention the left and right hemispheres of the brain to illustrate some larger point. Just yesterday, for instance, I invoked Colin Wilson’s theory that imaginative engagement, for both the reader and the writer, depends on bringing both hemispheres into sync, either by slowing down the left hemisphere or speeding up the right. I’ve referred to myself several times as a left-brained writer, and I’ve talked about ways of fooling the right brain into participating in the process, whether it’s in research, daydreaming, or the act of writing itself. I’ve even spoken briefly about the startling theory of Julian Jaynes, argued in great detail in The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, that consciousness as we know it arose within the era of recorded history, and that before this, men and women were simply obeying orders, heard as if spoken by an outside god or spirit, that wandered from the right brain into the left.

That said, it’s important to recognize that as our knowledge of the brain’s workings has advanced, the theory of the left and right hemispheres has been largely replaced by a more sophisticated breakdown of the areas in which creativity and other activities take place. The blog at Scientific American recently posted a takedown of this theory, pointing out that creativity draws on both sides:

Depending on the stage of the creative process, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task…Importantly, many of these brain regions work as a team to get the job done, and many recruit structures from both the left and right side of the brain.

Different tasks will activate different areas—Broca’s and Wernicke’s area for language, the visuospatial network for, well, basically what it sounds like—and other networks play various roles depending on the stage of the creative process: the attentional control network for focused activity, the imagination network for fantasy and empathy, with the attentional flexibility network allocating resources to the two as necessary.

Mind map for my article in The Daily Beast

On some level, you could argue that it doesn’t really matter where these functions take place, and that the left brain/right brain dichotomy retains its usefulness as a metaphor—which is true, and why I’ll probably continue to use it. But the neuroscience of creativity is still worth studying, if only because it serves as a reminder of how multifaceted the creative process really is. The rational left brain, or at least the functions we’d like to associate with it, is intimately involved with any extended artistic activity: writing a novel sometimes resembles bookkeeping as much as poetry, and even the most intuitive artist won’t bring a project to completion if he can’t keep his daydreams organized. (It’s preferable, in some ways, to reach even further back into the history of ideas and think of the artist’s two halves as Apollonian and Dionysian. Greek civilization produced the Discobolus of Myron, but it was also a culture in which supplicants cut the throats of sheep into trenches the ground to communicate with the chthonic gods—which, as poets like Anne Carson know, is basically a version of the drama being played out in every artist’s head.)

The brain, then, is a sort of team of rivals, all of which play a role at the appropriate time. David Mamet speaks of the Apollonian side of the playwright, which creates an outline to pass along to the Dionysian side, which writes the dialogue, and this underlying truth remains regardless of the terms we apply to it. It’s simplistic to even draw the line at the brain: as I’ve said before, the head has a body, and much of what an artist does is inseparable from the muscle memory embodied in the hands and the qualities of the five senses. Finding a way to coordinate all these pieces in a predictable way is the central problem of an artist’s life, and nearly everything we do—from the cultivation of good habits to the occasional abuse of caffeine and similar substances—comes down to controlling the parts of mind that we all have to a greater or lesser extent. Even if we give up control, it’s in a controlled way, with more rational parts of the brain ready to step in if the others get out of hand. And every writer finds his or her own solutions. We’ve all been given the same set of tools; the hard part is learning to use them, no matter what names we call them by.

So what exactly is genius?

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Napoleon Bonaparte

I throw around the word “genius” a lot on this blog. Over the last few years alone, I’ve written posts with titles like “The neurotic genius of Dan Harmon,” “Vince Gilligan and the dark genius of Breaking Bad,” and even “The lost genius of Family Circus.” I’ve applied the term to individuals as diverse in their fields as Charles Schulz, Ferran Adrià, Matthew Weiner, Umberto Eco, Shigeru Miyamoto, and Dr. Seuss. The more I look at the word, though, the less satisfactory it seems. When I think of genius, isolated from any particular case or example, I tend to picture something inexplicable, maybe even a little sinister, as Goethe says about the career of one incomparable genius of the world:

The story of Napoleon produces on me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of Saint John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.

That sense of something unknown that we haven’t yet been able to grasp is central to the traditional spirit of genius, but at a time when most of our geniuses are so open to interviews, profiles, and commentary tracks, it’s hard not to feel that its meaning needs to be reappraised.

Originally, “genius” was a term with a touch of the supernatural, describing a guiding spirit or deity. Even now, we often think of genius as something other than ordinary consciousness, and it feels this way even to those who seem to possess it. This fits reasonably well with what we know about the brain: impulses and ideas do appear to filter up from lower strata to be sifted or processed on a more conscious level, and they range from the decision to brush one’s teeth to the melody for “Yesterday.” In The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes hypothesizes that this division between inspiration and action used to be even more stark: messages would originate in the right hemisphere of the brain and wander into the left, where they were interpreted as the voice of a god or inner daimon. And one of the implications of modern neurological research is that this division still exists, and we’ve simply become better at attributing these impulses to our sense of self.

Stanley Kubrick

In short, there’s something occult and mysterious about the process of genius, at least as it’s traditionally understood. These days, however, much of it seems to unfold in public. Many of the individuals I mentioned above are geniuses in areas that don’t reward solitary visionaries so much as superb organizers: a television showrunner or film director may well follow a voice from his unconscious, but he also needs to be good at dealing with actors, coordinating the work of various creative departments, and deciding on the color of the wallpaper. As the case of Dan Harmon indicates, a strong creative vision may even be a liability if it makes it hard to work with others. And even a deeply original genius may find that inspiration is less important than methodical, systematic attention to detail. Kubrick, for instance, was as close to an intellectual genius as the movies have seen, but it manifested itself as much in his care and patience as in the conceptions of his films themselves. Genius is the engine that drives the project, but diligence brings it home.

And this deserves to be respected, even if it doesn’t fit the standard conception of genius—unless, of course, we use the alternative definition, as famously enunciated by Thomas Carlyle, that genius is a “transcendent capacity of taking trouble.” Napoleon, not surprisingly, embodied both qualities in one career, with a nearly supernatural level of intuition and decisiveness united to a bottomless appetite for facts, figures, and the daily bureaucratic grind of running an empire. (It’s no wonder that Kubrick was so obsessed by him.) A while back, I noted that the solitary geniuses of science, like Darwin or Freud, have largely been replaced by geniuses of collaboration, as science becomes an endeavor that requires increasing specialization and coordination. It’s likely that we’re seeing something similar taking place in the arts. The most visible art forms of our time—film, television, even music—are the work of little Napoleons, where the shadowy side of genius is enabled by the gifts of great producers and administrators. It’s the age of left-brained genius. And now it’s the right brain that seems to be taken along for the ride.

Julian Jaynes on spontaneous divination

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Think of some problem or concern in a vague kind of way. Then look out the window suddenly or around where you are and take the first thing your eye lights upon, and try to ‘read’ out of it something about your problem. Sometimes nothing will happen. But at other times the message will simply flash into your mind. I have just done this as I write and from my north window see a television aerial against a twilight sky. I may divine this as meaning I am being much too speculative, picking up fleeting suggestions from flimsy air—an unfortunate truth if I am to face these matters at all. I again think vaguely of my concerns and, walking about, suddenly cast my eyes on the floor of an adjoining room where an assistant has been building an apparatus, and see a frayed wire with several strands at the end. I divine that my problem in this chapter is to tie together several different strands and loose ends of evidence. And so on.

Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

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July 23, 2011 at 9:26 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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