Uncertainty as an Opening

uncertainty Once in a while, for fun, I take some quiz or questionnaire that has me rate my agreement with various statements, for instance: “I like to have things planned out in advance.” What am I to say? Do I agree with it or not? Is it even possible to respond in the abstract? Yes, I like to plan things in advance. In less than two weeks I leave from Istanbul, where I will be teaching for two weeks at the wonderful Sainte Pulchérie Fransız Lisesi; from there I go to Budapest and Košice for a week. I have planned a beautiful itinerary and schedule but have also left room for the unexpected. It’s possible that the unforeseen parts will have the most meaning, as they will take me out of what I already know.

I have uncertainties in my life as well. I devoted this year to writing my second book. I have finished the second round of revisions but do not yet have an agent, let alone a publisher. People are often surprised when they hear this; they don’t know why someone would write a book without a contract. Of course it’s risky–but not nearly as risky as waiting for that elusive contract and maybe not writing any book at all! I chose to focus first on the work and only later on its place in the world. For that reason, I am facing uncertainty, but it’s worthwhile.

There’s a great comfort in locating yourself in the world, especially in conversations with others. Perceived success often has to do with having a place. When people ask, “Who’s your publisher?” it’s awkward to say, “I don’t have one.” When people ask, “How’s the job search going?” it’s embarrassing to reply, “I was turned down for job A and haven’t heard anything about B, C, D, E, or F.” I sense acutely that I am coming across as Unsuccessful. But this lack of placement–this interval of not knowing where one will be–can have great meaning and thrill.

I lack certain external markers right now; I cannot glibly say, “Oh, my book will be published by Knopf, and I will be heading a new humanities program at Carnegie Mellon in the fall.” That sounds extremely impressive and warming; I suspect that if it were true, I’d be glad. Sweet grapes these would be. The names wouldn’t even have to be so grand; there’s a comfort in having any concrete answer to the question, “Who are you and where are you going?”

But here’s the rub; if I had these externals all set up, if I had a ready-made answer, I would never have worked with the question. The uncertainty has been its own fortune.

Not knowing who the publisher would be, I persisted with the book; through this, I came to know it on its own terms.

Not knowing what my job would be, I looked at many possibilities; in seeing them, I started imagining what I could do. Had my job been all set up, I would not have had a chance to do this.

Beyond that, there’s a strength that comes from letting oneself just plain not know.

I also recognized how much I have, even in this uncertainty. I thought of the harrowing uncertainty that millions upon millions of people suffer every day: the uncertainty about the next meal or shelter, or even life itself. My uncertainties are not petty or trivial–but in looking at them, I see uncertainties vastly more difficult than my own.

The uncertainty can also open up into beauty. This year I have had room to go to concerts, plays, and an opera; see friends; take walks; go biking; visit Columbia Secondary School and lead philosophy roundtables there; and plan the upcoming trip, while also devoting myself to my book and the cantillation course.

So uncertainty can be an opening into oneself, one’s work, and the world. Last week, when walking down 88th St., I saw a tree in bloom and took the photo above. At that moment, I realized that I had noticed the tree because I was not rushing off somewhere. I had a little lull in the morning and did not know exactly where I would go next. There’s a liveliness in that lull. Of course I can’t stay in it forever, but I remember it as I go on.

In fact, if I think of the happiest moments of my life, there’s one kind that stands out among the rest. It’s that brief shivery hesitation, where for a split second your soul vibrates. I have had this at street intersections, in classrooms, and before a scroll. For just a flash, you do not know the next step, and that flash holds everything. Then it goes away and you continue on your course, which now has tinges of gold.

 

In Praise of Lingering

fort-tryon-6Our culture extols “moving on”–that is, putting the past behind you, dropping all negative influences from your life, and steamrolling your way into satisfaction. Yet neither lingering nor “moving on” is inherently good or bad; both can participate in virtue, and both can be taken to extremes. Of course it isn’t helpful to hold on to an old grudge or wait for someone who has willfully left your life. But there is a place for memory and waiting; maybe it’s just a little place–a rock out in the woods–but still a place, and worth a pause.

In a stunning interview with Joe Fassler (in The Atlantic), George Saunders, whose novel Lincoln in the Bardo came out this week, speaks about the unsettlement of fiction–with particular attention to Anton Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries.” Saunders understood Chekhov for the first time when hearing Tobias Wolff read three of his stories aloud:

I was a first-year grad student at Syracuse when I went to see Tobias Wolff, who was our teacher, do a reading at the Syracuse Stage. He was feeling under the weather that night, so instead of reading from his work he said he was going to read Chekhov. He read three Chekhov short stories known as the “About Love” trilogy, and “Gooseberries” is the middle component. It was a huge day for me because I’d never really understood Chekhov at all. I’d certainly never understood him to be funny. But when Toby was reading him, he captured this beautiful range of feelings: beautiful, lyrical sections and laugh-out-loud-funny things.

It reminds me a little of what I heard yesterday in the third movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (I went to an open rehearsal at the New York Philharmonic). It is described as parody–and indeed there’s a great deal of that–but there’s also something soulful, something that doesn’t let you put it aside. Here’s a video of Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra performing it. You might end up listening to it again and again.

Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” seems to be saying one thing about happiness–and then, as Saunders points out, it takes a turn, but not just one. Even the digressions, even the passing details, have something to do with happiness. One tone turns into another. The story within a story lets us think, for a while, that we know what the story is, only to find out later that we do not.

In a very different (and ferocious) way, this happens in Saunders’s story “Winky,” which he does not bring up in the interview. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read it–but it starts out with a cult approach to happiness, in which, to attain “Inner Peace,” the willing must identify the human obstacles in their life, erect protective barriers against them, and confront them with this new state of things:

“First, we’ll identify your personal Gene. Second, we’ll help you mentally install a metaphorical Screen over your symbolic oatmeal. Finally, we’ll show you how to Confront your personal Gene and make it clear to him or her that your oatmeal is henceforth off-limits.”

This is so ridiculous (yet recognizable) that we know it will break down somehow. But what makes this story stand out (not only among stories, but in my life) is the poetry of the breakdown. I am left with a little ache; instead of feeling vindicated, of being reassured that this stuff is as stupid as it sounds, I am brought into something more important, where I am not entirely justified or right. I can’t just walk away; I have to stop for a little bit.

Near the end of the interview, Saunders says, “Fiction can allow us a really brief residence in the land of true ambiguity, where we really don’t know what the hell to think.” He adds that it’s impossible to dwell there forever–but even a few minutes can do tremendous good.

To boot, insistent, dogmatic “moving on” can do great harm. If we not only march forward in brazen confidence, but also look down on those who linger and question, then we stigmatize conscience itself. I have seen this happen a lot, not only on the political front, but in everyday contexts: people say, “move on, move on,” implying that those who pause, even briefly, are doing something wrong or, worse, standing in the way of progress.

Lingering is not inherently good either; all depends on its form and meaning. But just a little bit, a hint of “maybe I was wrong,” could offset some of the cruelty in the world and open up the imagination.

 
Photo credit: I took this picture a few days ago in beloved Fort Tryon Park.

Note: I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

Interesting Studies with Hasty Conclusions

I recognize that I was a bit harsh on the calendar synaesthesia study–that is, dismissive in tone. What bothered me was the claim (right there in the paper itself) that this constituted the first “clear unambiguous proof for the veracity and true perceptual nature” of calendar synaesthesia. I sincerely thought, for a little while, that this might be a hoax.

The experiments of the study do not prove anything, nor do they have to. It would be far more interesting (to me) if the authors explored the uncertainties a bit more.

For instance, when you have a mitigating conditioned response, how do you tell what is synaesthesia and what isn’t? Say, for instance, that you have learned to read sheet music from a young age. Suppose, now, that when you hear music, you see musical notes before you. Is this synaesthesia, or is this a learned association between musical notation and sounds?

The calendar situation seems similar. We have all seen calendars (many times). They take different shapes but always arrange the dates in some pattern. In addition, we have seen clocks, season wheels, and other representations of time. If I can picture the months in an atypical (fixed) shape, is this synaesthesia, or is it a modification of learned associations between time and images?

I do not doubt the existence of synaesthesia (of certain kinds). I just see reason to try to delineate what it is and isn’t–and to refine the surrounding questions, including questions of methodology.

The other day, Andrew Gelman posted an (exploratory) manifesto calling for more emphasis  on–and better guidelines for–exploratory studies. The piece begins with a quote from Ed Hagen:

Exploratory studies need to become a “thing.” Right now, they play almost no formal role in social science, yet they are essential to good social science. That means we need to put as much effort in developing standards, procedures, and techniques for exploratory studies as we have for confirmatory studies. And we need academic norms that reward good exploratory studies so there is less incentive to disguise them as confirmatory.

The problem is twofold: (1) Exploratory studies don’t get enough respect or attention, so people disguise them (intentionally or not) as confirmatory studies; (2) Exploratory stories can be good, bad, and anything in between, so there should be clearer standards, procedures, and techniques for them. “Exploratory” does not (and should not) mean “anything goes.”

But then comes the question: What constitutes a good exploratory study? Gelman offered a few criteria, to which others added in the prolific comment section.

It would be encouraging if the social sciences (and other fields, including literature) worked carefully with uncertainties (and got published because they did so). Instead of iffy studies, we’d have studies that wielded the “if” with skill and care.

P.S. Speaking of Andrew Gelman’s blog, I had some fun responding to Rolf Zwaan’s “How to Cook Up Your Own Social Priming Article.”

 

A Dream of Uncertainty

Yesterday I sat for a while on a bench in Riverside Park, listening to the water and the wind (and traffic). I had a chance to sort through the many events and conversations of the week. It has been an exhilarating and exhausting time: my students’ philosophy journal received a great review, a paperback edition of my book just came out, and my classes have been lively. More exciting events lie ahead—and, as usual, I have piles of homework to grade and a backlog of errands and duties.

In the midst of this, I have a slight ache, which goes back to the subject of my book. It has been a long time since I heard someone praise—or even acknowledge—singularity and independent thought. (The one recent exception was Susannah Heschel, who gave a wonderful lecture yesterday about her father, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and his relationship with Rabbi Marshall Meyer [1930-1993]). One thing she said that struck me is that we have a responsibility to let ourselves be uncertain.

In general, what I hear all around me is “Go Team.” People are praised insofar as they serve the team; teams are praised insofar as they are teams. (G. K. Chesterton would have had a field day with this phenomenon.) The word “community” likewise comes in hardened dogmatic form (as David Bromwich notes in his 1992 book Politics by Other Means). As it is commonly invoked, the “community” doesn’t make allowances for those who don’t fit its strictures or who make a regular practice of walking away.

I am not deploring the concepts of team and community; my complaint is that they have been taken too far. There is too little room for the counterpart, which could be called solitude. Solitude and company (or community, or collaboration, or friendship) exist in complex relation. Solitude, like community, can be understood crassly. It is not just time alone, or space apart. It is part of the mind, soul, and sinews. (Yes, there’s solitude even in dusting the furniture—the private glimpse of the shining wood and the specks flying up in the air.)

My students recently read part of A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. There’s a passage (in the final chapter) where the sight of a man and woman coming together on the street and entering a taxicab sets off a stream of thoughts about how our creative work requires the coming together of the male and female in our minds. In this very passage, there’s solitude (the stream of thought) and company (the man and woman entering the taxicab). Who could separate them? What would the stream of thought be without the encounter, or vice versa?

My most important projects have had a combination of solitude and collaboration. The philosophy journal could not have existed without the individuals who worked on it. Yes, we had to bring the many efforts together, but without the singularity of the contributions, there wouldn’t have been much to bring. The wit, thoughtfulness, and beauty did not come from a team. At the same time, we spent much time meeting and deliberating over matters of many sizes.

My book, which was largely a solitary effort, involved some collaboration as well. I sent individual chapters to scholars and others who had special knowledge of the subject. Whenever I quoted texts, I did so with care—taking the larger context of the work into account, tracking down first editions for the bibliography, and so on. Beyond that, many of the ideas in the book were inspired by people who had influenced me along the way: teachers, students, mentors, friends, and family members.

All of this is obvious yet difficult to describe. Solitude is not completely solitude, nor company completely company. The problem I see around me is a sealing of terminology. People speak of “the team” as though that’s all that existed and mattered. There’s little recognition that it’s only a part. The same can be said for invocations of community; the community would be a great thing, were it allowed to be a little less than great.

This brings me to the title of the post: “A Dream of Uncertainty.” I long for a language that questions itself, that recognizes its own indefinite edges. I long for a community that does not pretend to be everything, to include everyone, or to be more glorious than it is. Uncertainty allows for an opening—a way of existing with things that go beyond us, that slip away from us, that hum a song beyond our understanding.