Bibliomania!

April 22, 2014

The Tell-Tale Heart$_57 (2)The Cask of Amontillado

I can try to blame it on the fantastic blog 50 Watts, or on this fine exhibit at The Morganbut in fact, it’s all on me:  I’ve loved books with woodcuts since I was a boy, and I recently went on a bit of a spree getting illustrated and limited editions of a few of my literary favorites.  None of them are particularly valuable, but all are, as they say, “collectible“.

Above, is an edition of Poe’s tales that was issued in the 1940s, although I recall these images from a library book, perhaps a reprint, when I was in school.  The book is in great condition, and I re-papered the tattered slipcase, one of my new hobbies.  I love that Fortunato and Montresor!

This collection of Poe stories (remember the old song from Mad Magazine?) is part of a series of woodcut-illustrated classics published in paperback by Penguin Books, and featured in the Morgan exhibition.  Found it online, but it has not arrived in the mail yet.

image1

Of course, when it comes to Poe, my favorite, after Amontillado, and distiguished by being his only novel, is the Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym.  I bought a few editions in French, all translated by Charles Baudelaire, who introduced Poe to France in the 1850s.  This is a nicely illustrated copy from the 1970s.

10324066187 10324066187_2

And here is a first edition of Pym’s Adventures, first edition in French, that is, published in 1858.  Why is it that the French were so far ahead of everyone else when it comes to paperbacks?  The book on the mantle of this well-known painting by Magritte is Arthur Gordon Pym, although I can’t make out the date.

$_12 (1)Reproduction Prohibited

Finishing with Poe, I got this selection of tales, again in French, because I liked the wonderful lithographic illustrations.

$(KGrHqRHJBQE8e25Stv0BPP4YE!t)g~~60_57 $(KGrHqRHJBIE8e0EUlkcBPP4YObR!Q~~60_57

Done with Poe!  Candide is one of my all-time favorite books, so I have many copies of it, including a variety of cheap paperpacks, but I decided to upgrade my collection.  This French edition is illustrated by the Italian Umberto Brunelleschi using stencils, or pochoirs.  It was published in the 1930s – quite a racy little paperback.

cadide

Back to woodcuts with this 1920s edition, also heavy on the erotic aspect, as is par for the course with Candide, and why not!

$_57 (3)  $_57 (4)

Not in the greatest condition, this one, but it was cheap, and get a load of that volupté

$(KGrHqFHJFIFEFp)BrwUBREw!ILgow~~60_57 $(KGrHqNHJE!FEN1l02ggBREw!ZLrDQ~~60_57

And a tiny little softcover edition from the 1920s, complete with woodcut illustrations and vignettes.  Did I mention that one of my Internet passwords is Pangloss?

$_57 (5)

I have a few editions of Candide with illustrations by Rockwell Kent – it was such a popular production that it was issued several times in different formats, but I had never even seen a copy of the Kent Moby Dick.  (I read that it was a big deal that Melville’s name wasn’t on the cover, as if you needed it!)  This Random House edition from 1930 is the first reissue of the Kent illustrated version, originally published in a very limited three-volume set.  (There is also a fancy gold and blue covered version of this book from 1933.)  Kent’s pictures are fantastic, but they are ink drawings, not woodcut prints, although they are almost always referred to as such.

$_12

$_57

$_57 (1)

I like Barry Moser’s art work a lot, and I have a few trade editions of his books – Alice in Wonderland, Frankenstein – so I figured I should get a copy of his Moby Dick.  It’s often cited as a superlative example of book design and production, and the original letterpress edition goes for many thousands of dollars:  I settled for the hardcover University of California reprint.  I like it, but it just doesn’t excite me the way Rockwell Kent’s does.

9780520045484 moser-whales 2011-01-MobyDick-240241

And while I was on this Herman Melville theme, I read this book about the slave trade, by a local historian.  The facts of the trade are unspeakably appalling, a veritable holocaust that played out over centuries.  Even the language of the traders is similar to what we know of Nazi organizers of the death camps:  the main difference was that slaves were expected to reproduce, rather than simply work themselves to death.  One of the benefits of a pre-industrial age.

download

It’s a discussion of the Atlantic slave trade, using Melville’s novella, Benito Cereno, as unifying narrative device for the history.  Until I read this book, I had thought that Melville based his story on facts from the Amistad case, but actually, there really was a Captain Delano!  He was an ancestor of FDR, and quite a few other people as well, and he was involved in the slave trade himself, fine old New Englander that he was.  The story is based on his memoir which recounts in detail his encounter with the historical Don Benito.  I purchased this limited edition illustrated edition of Benito Cereno with woodcuts by Derrick Palmer, published by the Imprint Society.

The pictures below show Delano being rowed to the captive slave ship, and Babu’s head on a pike, after the truth has been revealed.

photo_44477_carousel Benito-Cereno-Head

 


Strangers in Paradise

May 17, 2013

  

From Herman Melville’s Typee:

Among the islands of Polynesia, no sooner are the images overturned, the temples demolished, and the idolators converted into NOMINAL Christians, that disease, vice, and premature death make their appearance. The depopulated land is then recruited from the rapacious, hordes of enlightened individuals who settle themselves within its borders, and clamorously announce the progress of the Truth. Neat villas, trim gardens, shaven lawns, spires, and cupolas arise, while the poor savage soon finds himself an interloper in the country of his fathers, and that too on the very site of the hut where he was born. The spontaneous fruits of the earth, which God in his wisdom had ordained for the support of the indolent natives, remorselessly seized upon and appropriated by the stranger, are devoured before the eyes of the starving inhabitants, or sent on board the numerous vessels which now touch at their shores.

When the famished wretches are cut off in this manner from their natural supplies, they are told by their benefactors to work and earn their support by the sweat of their brows! But to no fine gentleman born to hereditary opulence, does this manual labour come more unkindly than to the luxurious Indian when thus robbed of the bounty of heaven. Habituated to a life of indolence, he cannot and will not exert himself; and want, disease, and vice, all evils of foreign growth, soon terminate his miserable existence.

But what matters all this? Behold the glorious result!—The abominations of Paganism have given way to the pure rites of the Christian worship,—the ignorant savage has been supplanted by the refined European! Look at Honolulu, the metropolis of the Sandwich Islands!—A community of disinterested merchants, and devoted self-exiled heralds of the Cross, located on the very spot that twenty years ago was defiled by the presence of idolatry. What a subject for an eloquent Bible-meeting orator! Nor has such an opportunity for a display of missionary rhetoric been allowed to pass by unimproved!—But when these philanthropists send us such glowing accounts of one half of their labours, why does their modesty restrain them from publishing the other half of the good they have wrought?—Not until I visited Honolulu was I aware of the fact that the small remnant of the natives had been civilized into draught-horses; and evangelized into beasts of burden. But so it is. They have been literally broken into the traces, and are harnessed to the vehicles of their spiritual instructors like so many dumb brutes!


Melville’s Encantadas

November 20, 2012

Melville’s sketches on the Enchanted Isles (The Encantadas) begins with a selection from Spencer’s The Faerie Queeneand continues with this wholly unjustified slur on iguanas.

Another feature in these isles is their emphatic uninhabitableness. It is deemed a fit type of all-forsaken overthrow that the jackal should den in the wastes of weedy Babylon, but the Encantadas refuse to harbor even the outcasts of the beasts. Man and wolf alike disown them. Little but reptile life is here found: tortoises, lizards, immense spiders, snakes, and that strangest anomaly of outlandish nature, the iguana. No voice, no low, no howl is heard; the chief sound of life here is a hiss.


Melville on Vere on Melville

November 19, 2012

From Billy Budd, by Herman Melville, on Captain Vere, emphasis added:

… not only did the captain’s discourse never fall into the jocosely familiar, but in illustrating any point touching the stirring personages and events of the time, he would cite some historical character or incident of antiquity with the same easy air that he would cite from the moderns. He seemed unmindful of the circumstance that to his bluff company such allusions, however pertinent they might really be, were altogether alien to men whose reading was mainly confined to the journals. But considerateness in such matters is not easy in natures constituted like Captain Vere’s. Their honesty prescribes to them directness, sometimes far-reaching like that of a migratory fowl that in its flight never heeds when it crosses a frontier.

I think he could have been describing himself and his own prose.


Le cercle rouge

October 25, 2011


Le cercle rouge (The Red Circle), is another Melville love song to American crime flicks (and American cars!)  It’s in color, but pretty bleak looking, appropriate for un film noir véritable.  It begins with a phony Buddhist text about the inevitability of men meeting in the red circle – I love that he made that up! – predestination and fate.  The moral heft is provided by a pipe smoking bewhiskered policeman who informs his subordinate that “tout les hommes sont cupables:” all men are guilty.  All.  They start out innocent, but it doesn’t last.  A nice dose of Christian original sin and French cynicism in the otherwise amoral tale.  Between the Eastern fate and the French sin, the red circle is pulled tightly around the men in the film.

I did say men, didn’t I?  I don’t think there is a woman with a speaking part in the story.  Women exist only as chorus girls in a tacky nightclub, scantily clad waitresses who pout a lot with their pretty faces, and one naked woman eavesdropping, and appearing in a photograph which the ‘hero’ contemptuously discards on his release from jail.

The story revolves around an ambitious heist in a deluxe jeweler’s showroom.  There’s a fancy alarm system that only a crack marksman can disarm.  The theft takes place in almost complete silence, and lasts for nearly one half-hour of the film, a nod to Rififi, no doubt, and just as in that movie, they all die.  There is a great sequence during the heist when the marksman, Yves Montand, after carefully setting up his tripod and rifle for the crucial shot at a miniscule target, suddenly grabs the gun off the stand, his comrades in crime are confused and surprised, but in one quick move, he raises the gun to make a sight and hits the target.  That’s good shooting!  Bart, from Gun Crazy, would approve.

The film begins with a prisoner, the ugly fellow below, being escorted on a train by a cop, handcuffed together.  The prisoner makes a brazen escape when the train slows down, and the cop is in hot water.  His superior asks him, “Did you think he wasn’t guilty?”  implying that he let his guard down because he was not tried and convicted yet.  Tout les hommes sont cupables.  The cop seems like a bit of a goof – we see him fussing over his cats – but he’s got what it takes in the end.

The escaped man meets Corey (Alain Delon) by chance, or fate as it were.  Delon’s sang froid is matched by the damp, icy landscapes through which they drive, shooting and looting.  The movie was a joy to watch, especially after a string of B-movie noir duds I’ve tried.

Yves Montand plays an ex-cop gone bad who happens to be suffering from the DTs when Corey taps him for this new job.  He declines his share of the loot:  he’s just happy to be off the sauce, with his ‘beasts’ locked away.  The images below are from his nightmare just before he gets the phone call to join the heist crew.  I like the iguanas, of course.


He makes a pretty quick, and not all that believable, recovery from the depths of alcoholism, finishing up with this sequence as he cooly lowers his pistol for a dead-on shot at his pursuers.  It doesn’t do him any good, of course.


Le deuxième souffle

May 15, 2011

Another film by Meville (the title translates as The Second Wind, as in another chance) with some new turns by the cast in Army of Shadows.  This one is about the world of gangsters, but its tone is not much different from that of his drama of the French WWII resistance, and the theme of honor and loyalty to comrades is important to both.

Lino Ventura plays Gustave ‘Gu’ Minda, a very tough thug whom we meet at the opening in the midst of a silent jailbreak.  One man falls to his death:  no one bats an eye.  The only thing that gets Gu excited is the notion that he might be a rat, and the not-too-bright police chief, Fardiano, spreads the story that Gu informed in order to drive him crazy, and maybe to talk.  Eventually, Gu exacts a terrible revenge that includes a signed statement that he did not inform on his mates to be delivered to the newspapers.  His honor among fellow thieves is his

life.  Even the Machiavellian police inspector, Commissaire Brot, grants him his due – after nabbing him  – by allowing the letters to be given to the newspaper.  Brot is always just a little closer to his prey than we expect in a big league Parisian policeman.

The glamor in the story radiates from Manouche, whom we, or at least I, thought was a love interest of Gu’s at first.  She is brought to his hideout for an elegant dinner, for which another thug brings Gu the proper attire.  They embrace on meeting, but we don’t see their faces, so it’s not obvious if their lips are meeting.  Most of the summaries I see of this film assume that they are engaged, or lovers, but later in the story, she is introduced as Gu’s sister.  During dinner, she says,  “We’ve been crooks since we were kids (les gosses)”.  Melville certainly is intrigued by mystified sibling relationships – a key element of the plot of Army of Shadows.

Here’s a post from another blog where the writer observes:

Manouche ( Christine Fabréga ) runs a chic Parisian restaurant, she is very concerned when she learns of Gus’s escape. Is she his girlfriend? An ex-lover? No, she is in fact his sister and their relationship is an intriguing and unique one.

In Melville by Rui Nogueria, Melville says that in French gangster slang “sister” is a term for girlfriend.  I believe Manouche is really Gu’s sister but the implied incest adds a compelling dimension to their relationship and Melville says “If I’ve let it be understood that Manouche is Gu’s sister, it’s because of the Enfants Terribles part of me- or rather because of the great homonyms Pierre or the Ambiguities.”

Jean-Pierre Melville (born Jean-Pierre Grumbach) using one of  Melville’s lesser-known novels to dispel ambiguity – what a rabbit hole to go down!

The film is based on a novel by the author who wrote the story of Le Trou.


City of God, Cities of Hell, Cities of Self

September 16, 2010

Saint Augustine discusses the two cities, that of The World and that of God, but they occupy the same place, are co-extensive!  We choose our citizenship in one or the other, but we do not relocate.  And the City always is referring to Rome, the sack of which, was the initial impetus to the writing of Augustine’s massive work.  In Part II, Saint A. finally leaves off trashing the pagans and their stupid arguments for why the Fall of Rome is all the fault of the Christians, and gets down to business:

My task is to discuss, to the best of my power, the rise, the development, and the destined ends of the two cities, the earthly and the heavenly, the cities which we find, as I have said, interwoven, as it were, in this present transitory world, and mingled with one another.

City of God, Part II,  Book XI, Chapter I –  The subject of the second part: the origins and ends of the two cities.

In his Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe has Mephistopholes advance a similar view of the geography of heaven and hell – they are the same place, but we don’t all occupy them together.  “I’m feeling good.  I’m in a good place today.”  “Oh yeah!  Well, I’m right next to you and I feel crappy!  Aren’t we in the same place?” 

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, but where we are is Hell,
And where Hell is, there shall we ever be.
And to be short, when all the world dissolves,
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be Hell that is not Heaven

Italo Calvino wrote a book called Invisible Cities, and one of them was the City of the Inferno.  It too occupied the same place as all the other cities, which is to say, the world.  Inferno makes us think of Dante, but his hell was in a specific location and was well mapped.

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together.  There are two ways to escape suffering it.  The first is easy for many:  accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it.  The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension:  seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities

I tend to think that Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row is yet another one of these cities, maybe a city of the self, certainly of the world, and it is everywhere.  Desolation Row is not just the Bowery, it is, as they say, a state of mind.  Is it someplace you want to get out of or escape to?  Not clear, maybe both.

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

To Desolation Row – B. Dylan

Finally, we have the City of the Self, the city within.  We all live in our own city, of one.  Is this city heavenly or hellish?  Seems it can be either one.  We make the city we live in the city of our self.  For some people, living anonymously in the midst of stone and asphalt can be the most beautiful and relaxing state of being; the country subjects us to the hell of other people.

I am going to seek solitude and rustic peace in the one place in France where they exist, in a fourth-floor apartment overlooking the Champs-Elysees.

Stendahl – The Red and the Black

Others, who won’t join the City of God, live in the city of the self that is obsessed with the world.  Ahab, the bad king of the Old Testament was one.  His modern incarnation sought the world out of obsession with whiteness, and wasn’t he really just self-obsessed?  He tries to bribe his crew into joining his metropolis of insanity.

Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke — look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!  Melville – Moby Dick

But for some, like Starbuck, even as they live their lives in the mini-city of the Pequod, the unfortunate New England whaler, and certainly no microcosm of a City of God, the city of self shows unexpected depths of peace.

And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yes, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.  Melville – Moby Dick

More at the True Binnacle:

Amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being… you can see all the way down to the calm center, where there is no city at all.

                


Free Will, and All That …

February 10, 2005

“Who is Number 1?”
“You are Number 6.”
“I am not a number. I am a free man!”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I …Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?

Two views of freedom for us poor pismires crawling about the surface of the globe. The Prisoner knows he is a free man, while Melville’s Ahab sees his actions as the movements of a puppet on a string, a string pulled by God, or something, perhaps the blind material universe. His insane murderous behavior is not his fault, it was caused, determined, preordained outside of his powers of volition.  I’ve been thinking about this free will jazz for a while, about thirty years. It occurred to me that something I said in my post about the so-called Intelligent Design theory might be said of free will, to wit, when you stop assuming it exists, you don’t see it anymore. That’s what some folks would argue about free will anyway, that it’s an illusion, that we are all, in fact, some sort of thinking automata that wonder if we have will and volition. Noooo. I don’t think so.

When a person becomes convinced of the soundness of evolutionary theory, he or she stops seeing design in nature, it’s true, but the person will also stop talking about design. Yes, they may say, “nature designed this in such a way..,” but that’s just shorthand for long phrases such as, “the random variation of types was winnowed by natural selection over a long period of time to yield…” Darwinians don’t believe in design in nature. People who claim to have demonstrated the illusory nature of free will still, however, use terms like choice, we, I, think, and so on. “When we make choices, we think we are free, but all our actions are as determined as the plunk and click of billiard balls moving about on a table.”  How can you speak of choice without free will?  Do thermostats make a choice when they go on as the temperature rises?  No, their actions are determined by physical law.  So, unless you think that people and their minds are machines like those we see about us, and unless you think that we never choose, you can’t claim not to believe in free will.

The issue of free will shouldn’t even be discussed – let’s ban it!  It’s a question badly framed at too high a level of abstraction.  First we have to decide what consciousness is, or mentality, because that’s what we think distinguishes us from purely deterministic machines.  Free will is just that question in another form.  And beyond that, there is the deeper question of what is determinism itself, what is causality, and what is time?  Free will is trivial if you can deal with those.

I like to say that the notion of free will requires determinism.  We act for reasons, acts are ‘determined’ by reasons, otherwise they would be random.  And random acts are not what we usually think of as the products of conscious volition.  So without strict determinism, there is no free will because there is no will.  Will is a determinate principle, whatever that means.  David Hume made sort of this argument when he said that the dispute was purely semantic and that our acts were free and determined.  Free in that that were not constrained, determined in that they had reasons.  I happen to agree with this for the most part but I don’t think it goes far enough in explaining why the anti-free will position just makes no sense.  I’m going to start by digressing onto a topic that I usually avoid, quantum physics.

I’ve just been reading an absolutely marvelous little book by Richard Feynman called The Character of Physical Law.  Feynman is brilliant, profound, and funny all at once, and if you think you’re not the type to read treatises by quantum physicists, this is the book for you.  Really – it was actually written for you!  The reason I avoid discussing quantum physics is because I’m sick of hearing people who don’t appear to know any more about about physics than I do say things like, “Of course, this applies to everything except the quantum level,” or “Of course, that only applies at the quantum level.”  I don’t know that much about physics, but it always seems to me that these arguments are kind of like deus ex machina.  And then, I wonder, how valid can an argument about everyday life be if it has to rely on quantum physics for a justification?  Something seems out of whack.

Now thinking again about that beefeater, David Hume, I’ve come up with a new thought: People get all hot and bothered about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle because they feel it contradicts what they know to be true about life.  What if it were just a confirmation of what we knew to be true?  What if life is not predictable, not determinate, but is sort of random?  And how does that square with what I said earlier?

Hume examined the notion of cause in detail and found that he couldn’t really pin it down.  A causes B because event A always precedes event B.  More than that, there is nothing to say about what cause is, anymore than we say what gravity is.  (Or what is is?)  We arrive at the notion of causality through induction, i.e., by watching and observing the same sequence happen over and over, and then drawing the conclusion that A causes B, but we cannot prove that someday A won’t cause B, or that B will happen without A happening first.  Notice that causality seems to work in one direction, forward in time (whatever that means.)  Hume is rather skeptical about this notion of cause, although he recognizes its utility, and he does not believe that it can be justified in any genuine way other than that it seems to be quite useful.  So, what if cause is an illusion?  Then the notion that we have no free will would be an illusion, wouldn’t it?  And wouldn’t free will be impossible since I claimed that it requires determinism?  No again, causality and determinism are not the same thing.

The conflating of predestination, determinism, and causality is a big problem with all of these discussions, but right now I want to point out that while causes appear, to us, to work forward in time, determinism always seems to be after the fact – something figured out in hindsight.  “Aha,” we say, “Now I see why that happened…because this, then that, then those, then finally this!”  This is exactly how it is with free will:  A person makes a choice; we ask why?  The person gives reasons; the anti-free will philosophers say, “Your choice was determinedby those reasons. You have no free will. It was all determined.”  But discerning determining circumstances is not the same as demonstrating causality.  If we didn’t have reasons for acting, we wouldn’t have a will, but having reasons doesn’t mean our choices were unfree.

Into this rambling discussion I now must vent my wrath against the sizable community of counter-factualists, those people who worry and wonder about what would have happened if Hitler hadn’t overslept on D-Day, if Richard’s horse hadn’t lost a nail, if John Wilkes Booth had missed his target, and so on.  You can wonder, but you can’t make much sense if you try to predict the future of the past as if the past had been different.  I have to fall back on my ironclad law of historical causation: Things happened as they did because that’s how they happened.  It wasn’t predetermined, it wasn’t predictable, it wasn’t predestined, and it only seems deterministic in hindsight.  But it was all caused, one piece at a time, and each free choice was determined by reasons one at a time. We really have to keep these concepts separate since they may not even make all that much sense taken one at a time.

If Hitler hadn’t overslept, perhaps NOTHING would have changed.  And if Hitler had died in that bomb plot, perhaps NOTHING would have changed, except he would have died.  We can’t even begin to say something sensible about this, except to carefully speculate on what the possibilities were.  (It was not possible that Martians would lead the Nazis to victory!)  And no matter how much data we have on what the situation was, and what the possible choices were (what is an impossible choice?) we can’t make any sensible statement (determination) about what counter-factual thing might have happened.  Call it Lichanos’ Historical Uncertainty Principle if you like.

So finally, I get back to Richard Feynman, who was explaining in his little book the well known puzzler about the electrons shooting through the sheet of metal with two holes in it, and interference patterns and all that, and it comes down to the simple inexplicable fact that you just can’t tell which hole an electron is going to come through as they pop out toward the sheet.  Just no way to predict, no matter what you know about the total situation.  Might be this one, might be that one.  “Nature herself does not know,” is how Feynman quotes one physicist.  Now this reminds me of another situation, much more familiar to readers of magazines and newspapers:

Two boys growing up next door to one another in a very poor, crime ridden neighborhood.  Same age, same family status, same education, same…everything!  One goes on to become a hood, and ends up badly, in jail for murder.  No surprise, it was a foregone conclusion, social determinism, environmental determinism, etc. etc.  The other one goes on to become a doctor and spends his life setting up free clinics for children all over the world, has a beautiful, brilliant doctor wife, and five lovely children.

Why one, and not the other?  Now, I’m not saying the environment doesn’t count, because it obviously changes and can constrict the choices available to one, but one still has choices.  Even with a gun to your head you can choose to obey your torturer or to die – it’s a bad set of choices, but you have a choice.  But maybe life is not deterministic as we usually take that word, and this is just one more example of it.  And maybe the world is not deterministic in the way that we think our notions of causation make us see it, and Feynman’s puzzler is just one little example of that.  Maybe…the electron…and the poor boys…are behaving in much the same manner.  (I don’t mean the electrons choose, but that both are not deterministic in the simple, can-be-predicted way we think of it usually.)  You see, we covet choice in the world, and want to get rid of it too.  Choice for people, causality and determinism for thermostats.  Maybe causality and determinism aren’t quite what we think for all and everyone.  Freedom for all!

[A simple thought-experiment: A man faces two doors; which will he pick?  He picks the red one: Aha, it was determined because of this, that, and the other thing, including his childhood experiences with ... But if he had picked the blue door, we would have made the same comments mutatis mutandi, we would have found a string of determining circumstances, so what does this tell us about anything?]

And what about randomness?  Huh, what about it?  What the hell is that?  Does anyone even try to explain why if I take 10,000 ball bearings and drop them in the top of a device with a grid of pegs over which they bounce as gravity pulls them down they will fall out the bottom and always make a bell-shaped distribution as they pile up?  Even if I drop each one in exactly the same way?  Is randomness some sort of effect of hidden causes, or, could it be, like those electrons? Just some irreducible fact of nature?  It seems that with ball bearings, as with poor boys, the same determining factors can lead to different outcomes.  (That’s not choice, but surely it leaves room for choice.  But what makes the choice?  What is the will after all?  Arrrrgghh!!)  Which would mean that our notion of cause should probably be more like David Hume’s than the rock-solid axiom we think it is.  Which means that free will isn’t so odd in the context of a ‘deterministic’ universe, and quantum effects are not so odd either.

The best book I ever read on this topic, before Feynman, was by Erwin Schrodinger, who certainly knew this stuff.  A wonderful little book, in which he said that when your ideas lead you to conclude that matter acts simultaneously as a particle and a wave, and that this causes contradictions, then it’s time to come up with a different notion of matter.

Sometimes I wonder if all these questions aren’t just a problem of scale.  As the scale of things changes, some things disappear.  As we walk around, we are not aware of quantum effects at the sub-atomic level; we aren’t even aware of molecules, not to mention that we are oblivious to the fact that matter is mostly empty space.  What if the same sort of effects relate to time – what would that do to our notion of causality and determinism?  As we ‘zoom’ our time-scale out to the enormous, everything would appear to be happening at more or less the same time, wouldn’t it?  Events that seem of long duration now become an eye-blink. Stretches of intervening time between events become eye-blinks. (Remember that eye blinking as Dave makes his descent to Jupiter in 2001?)  And finally, everything is happening simultaneously. What came before what? If you don’t know, you can’t talk about causes. And if an event is always happening, or has always happened, e.g. the universe has always been here, then it was never caused at all, which is how some medieval philosophers demonstrated that there could be an event without a cause, which might or might not have been God…

I don’t pretend to know the meaning of what I just wrote there, but I do think our notions of time are very crude, and have only changed slightly in the last 100 years since Einstein gave them a jolt. Things may change a lot more in very many ways. Meanwhile,

It’s my life and I’ll do what I want
It’s my mind and I’ll think what I want
Show me I’m wrong…


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 195 other followers