Interiority

To explore someone else’s interiority is not just to flash, at this moment, to what you think the other person might be thinking or feeling. It’s a layered, almost literary thing, to imagine the history of their experiences (known and unknown, actual and possible) and to think through those experiences, thoughts, and feelings all the way through to the end.

Today I found myself thinking back to this, from the January 12 edition of the Kottke/Carmody Noticing newsletter.

The restriction of trailers to a few minutes of carefully selected and edited shots and scenes endows what we do see, from faces to car crashes, with a kind of pregnancy or underdeterminacy that allows audiences to create an imaginary (as-yet-unseen) film out of these fragments—we desire not the real film but the film we want to see.

An essential aspect of a painter’s canvas and a musical instrument is the immediacy with which the artist gets something there to react to. A canvas or sketchbook serves as an “external imagination”, where an artist can grow an idea from birth to maturity by continuously reacting to what’s in front of him.

Learnable Programming. Also:

As a child, you probably had the experience of playing with a construction kit of some kind – Legos, or Erector Sets, or even just blocks. As a first act before starting to build, a child will often spread out all of the parts on the floor. This provides more than simply quick access. It allows the child to scan the available parts and get new ideas. A child building a Lego car might spot a wide flat piece, and decide to give the car wings.

I dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes — all the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.

Michel Foucault (via viafrank). See also Clive James:

Whatever the subject, a real critic is a cultural critic, always: if your judgment doesn’t bring in more of the world than it shuts out, you shouldn’t start.

and Anthony Lane:

Of all the duties required of the professional critic, the least important—certainly the least enduring—is the verdict.

On Taste – Edmund Burke

Like yesterday’s Oscar Wilde, here’s favorites from another good bit of vacation reading.* First a bit on imagination, and that there’s nothing new, just what we take in and recombine:

The mind of man possesses a sort of creative power of its own; either in representing at pleasure the images of things in the order and manner in which they were received by the senses, or in combining those images in a new manner, and according to a different order. This power is called Imagination; and to this belongs whatever is called wit, fancy, invention, and the like. But it must be observed, that this power of the imagination is incapable of producing any thing absolutely new; it can only vary the disposition of those ideas which it has received from the senses.

Burke argues that, when comparing, it’s easier and to our benefit to look more for similarities than differences:

The mind of man has naturally a far greater alacrity and satisfaction in tracing resemblances than in searching for differences; because by making resemblances we produce new images, we unite, we create, we enlarge our stock; but in making distinctions we offer no food at all to the imagination; the task itself is more severe and irksome, and what pleasure we derive from it is something of a negative and indirect nature.

Ain’t nothing you can’t learn from. Also reminds me of Seth Roberts’ writing on appreciative thinking and Philip Ball’s suggestion that “Ideas and views that differ from one’s own should not be targets for demolition, but whetstones for sharpening one’s own thoughts.”.

He goes on to talk about our opinions and tastes, how we outgrow them, and how our smugness and satisfaction with our own views is a second-order pleasure at best. This strikes me as something well worth remembering:

Almost the only pleasure that men have in judging better than others, consists in a sort of conscious pride and superiority, which arises from thinking rightly; but then, this is an indirect pleasure, a pleasure which does not immediately result from the object which is under contemplation. In the morning of our days, when the senses are unworn and tender, when the whole man is awake in every part, and the gloss of novelty fresh upon all the objects that surround us, how lively at that time are our sensations, but how false and inaccurate the judgments we form of things? I despair of ever receiving the same degree of pleasure from the most excellent performances of genius, which I felt at that age from pieces which my present judgment regards as trifling and contemptible.

We change our opinions over time (hopefully some, at least) by learning more, paying more attention, and thinking about them more. Slow opinions tend to be better. See also stong opinions, weakly held.

Men of the best taste, by consideration, come frequently to change these early and precipitate judgments, which the mind, from its aversion to neutrality and doubt, loves to form on the spot. It is known that the taste (whatever it is) is improved exactly as we improve our judgment, by extending our knowledge, by a steady attention to our object, and by frequent exercise. They who have not taken these methods, if their taste decides quickly, it is always uncertainly; and their quickness is owing to their presumption and rashness, and not to any sudden irradiation, that in a moment dispels all darkness from their minds.

*Yeah, this is what I read at the beach. Instapaper ftw. Just how I roll.
On Taste – Edmund Burke

What is good music?

A review of Roger Scruton’s new book, Understanding Music. I like this analogy, where he uses Wittgenstein’s idea that music is like a facial expression:

Just as facial expressions do not communicate something that can be understood so much as enjoin us to imagine what it feels like when we ourselves make such an expression, so too, according to Scruton, does some elemental aspect of musical experience enjoin us to engage our imagining in similar fashion. In this way, and because the experience of music is not, at least not typically, heard as a single expression, the imagination is forced to grapple with the musical shapes and forms as they unfold over time, following its movement as it echoes in, or is anticipated by, the movements of our body and rational imagination.

It is in this aspect of “enjoinment” – of the way we join with the music – that is the key to Scruton’s conception not only of musical understanding but also of its wider cultural and social value. Just as a grimace demands that we imagine the complex of unpleasant feelings and thoughts behind that particular belligerent facial expression, so too music may require us to identify with a world of sensibilities which happens to sit ill with us.

What is good music?