Another Thing Altogether

The following passage is about professional philosophy and its relation to human experience, but it applies equally well to academic psychology. Don’t we learned, similar to the student James talks about in this passage, to expect an absence of relationship between psychological science and our personal realities?

[The student] began by saying that he had always taken for granted that when you entered a philosophic class-room you had to open relations with a universe entirely distinct from the one you left behind you in the street. The two were supposed, he said, to have so little to do with each other, that you could not possibly occupy your mind with them at the same time. The world of concrete personal experiences to which the street belongs is multitudinous beyond imagination, tangled, muddy, painful and perplexed. The world to which your philosophy-professor introduces you is simple, clean and noble. The contradictions of real life are absent from it. Its architecture is classic. Principles of reason trace its outlines, logical necessities cement its parts. Purity and dignity are what it most expresses. It is a kind of marble temple shining on a hill. In point of fact it is far less an account of this actual world than a clear addition built upon it, a classic sanctuary in which the rationalist fancy may take refuge from the intolerably confused and gothic character which mere facts present. It is no EXPLANATION of our concrete universe, it is another thing altogether, a substitute for it, a remedy, a way of escape.

— William James (quoted in Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life by John Kaag)

Updates on Events & Activities

The most recent gathering of my meetup group was well attended and livelier than usual. We discussed Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. Upcoming meetups will be about Anton Chekhov (short stories), another Murakami book (Dance, Dance, Dance), and Jeff Hawkins (A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence). I reviewed A Thousand Brains a while ago on my YouTube channel, and I look forward to talking about it with others. If you’re interested in joining the meetup group, feel free to do so. There are currently 750 members and we occasionally have some a lively discussion.

My Patreon Reading Group started on Sunday with the Jung Reader. We will have another four meetings on Carl Jung and I will most likely go on to develop a mini-course on Jung. I have made a schedule for those meetings, also setting up Eventbrite links to make it possible for people to join without joining my Patreon. I have been drawn to Jung partly as a result of reading Murakami and partly as a result of Jordan Peterson’s influence on popular culture. The Jung-Murakami connection is more interesting to me and I am reading the two writers through each other without letting either of them subsume the other. I hope to explore their connections and disharmonies in future writing. In the meantime, I enjoy discussing Jung with this group.

Wednesday afternoon sessions with a small group of psychology students (“Coffee with Prof. Gozli”) will continue, although we are taking a break this week. This is a free-style discussion group, without any serious attachment to a topic or a project. In those sessions, I try to practice and promote the idea of “center-less” conversations, where the authority of “the Professor” is less decisive in what we talk about and how we talk. Places like this, and their availability, is helpful for the development of students’ confidence and self-reliance.

A few other meetings are on the horizon, all of which associated with my YouTube channel. Our discussion of Hayden White’s Tropics of Discourse with John David will continue, with our second session toward the end of this week, most likely with the addition of O.G. Rose in our group. I have grown quite fond of John already, and even though I haven’t had a live conversation with O.G. Rose yet, I am sure the three of us will have an interesting and fruitful discussion. If all goes well, Tyson and I will also begin a series of conversations this week. Finally, I will soon have an interview with a phenomenologist, whom I have known and admired for a few years and I am excited to introduce on the channel.

With regard to writing projects, I am (very slowly) editing a collection of book chapters (written by various authors). Most of the chapters are ready, but the project as a whole still needs quite a bit of time and energy from me. Once I am done with the chapters, I need to co-write an introductory chapter for the collection and then send it to the publisher. Another relatively smaller writing task, due soon, is a brief commentary for Constructivist Foundations. Once these and a few other minor tasks (e.g., book reviews) are completed, there will be time and space for another relatively “big” writing project.

First Person Singular (Haruki Murakami) 1: “Creme”

The short story “Creme” is the first in the recently published Haruki Murakami collection, First Personal Singular (Ichininshō Tansū), translated to English by Philip Gabriel. The story’s title hints at the French expression crème de la crème, which refers to the very best part or the very best instance of something. We could, therefore, regard the story as an attempt at describing what is best in life. But this strategy only amplifies the strangeness of this story.

Let’s begin with a summary. A narrator is telling a friend a story from his past, from when he was a young man of about eighteen years old. He had finished high school and been trying to study for the national university entrance exam. He wasn’t studying well and he wasn’t optimistic about the entrance exam. Rather than concentrating on his studies, he was drawn toward reading novels.

Out of the blue, our narrator received a postcard inviting him to a piano recital. The invitation came from a girl, a distant acquaintance from the narrator’s high school. Aside from their minimal interactions at school, the two had practiced and performed some music together. The girl had been a more skilled piano player and our narrator had felt inferior to and judged by the girl. Given that background history, he was puzzled by the invitation and decided to attend the recital if only to discover the motive behind the invitation (“Does she like me?”, “Does she want to show how much she has improved?”).

He buys an expensive bouquet of flowers, puts on his best clothes (although there is a mismatch between his jacket and his pants, one being too new, the other being too old) and gets on the bus. He is self-conscious and feels like others are staring at him and his clothes. The bus takes him far, to a peripheral part of the city and by the time he reaches his destination he is the only passenger on the bus. He finds himself in an affluent neighborhood and discovers that there is nobody else there for the concert. There is, indeed, no sign at all of a concert taking place. He finds the building and rings the doorbell, but nobody responds. It seems as if the girl intentionally misled him into believing there was going to be a recital.

Confused, our narrator goes to a small park nearby and sits on a bench. Then he hears, from a distance, the sound of a Christian preacher coming from the speakers attached to a car. The voice gets louder and clearer as the car approaches his location and he hears segments of the speaker’s message, about death, judgment in afterlife, and acceptance of Jesus Christ as the way to redemption. The car never enters his field of vision, and turns away before reaching him, the voice of the speaker slowly disappears. At this point, he is attacked by anxiety. He closes his eyes and concentrates on his heartbeat. When he opens his eyes, an old man is sitting in front of him.

The old man is aware of his state and instructs him to imagine something — a circle with many centers and no circumference. Imagining this many-centered circle is offered as a kind of solution to his current circumstances. They talk about the difficulty of imagining such a shape, and the old man emphasizes that the difficulty of imagining that shape is part of what makes it the best thing in life (crème de la crème). Anyone can imagine a circle with one center and a circumference! What is now demanded from him is to imagine something that is hard to imagine. This cryptic message isn’t interpreted in the conversation — or anywhere else in the story.

After remembering the episode, we return to the narrator and his friend in the present time, and the two continue talking about the many-centered circle, the strangeness of that memory, and in general the unintelligible events that occasionally take place in life.

With that summary in mind, let’s now attempt an interpretation. First, I try to make sense of the old man’s cryptic message, and second, I take that understanding of the cryptic message back into some of the events of the story.

Worldview as a Circle

If we take a circle to represent a worldview, we could assume that each person is the center of his or her circle. Each person looks at reality from a particular position (center of that particular circle) and, furthermore, each worldview has a boundary. What is within a given worldview (inside the circumference) is intelligible by that worldview, whereas what is beyond a given worldview (outside the circumference) is unintelligible. With this presupposition, we can ask: What does it mean for a circle to have multiple centers? And, what does it mean for a circle to have no circumference?

We could read the multiplicity of centers as multiplicity of perspectives. The more centers our circle has, the more perspectives we have within that piece of the world. This could mean perspectives that belong to different individuals or different perspectives available to one individual. To transfer this idea back into the story, let’s consider three episodes: (1) the time the narrator and the girl were practicing music and he wasn’t doing well, (2) the time the narrator received the postcard invitation, and (3) the time he realized nobody was at the concert and that perhaps there was no concert. The story gives us access to these episodes only through the perspective of the narrator (with the narrator is at the center). Thus, we read about how she seemed annoyed at him, perhaps regretting the fact that they had to perform together; we read about the invitation to the recital, while not knowing why she had sent the invitation; and, we find — along with the narrator — that there was no concert. We get confused with the narrator. We join him in asking “Why?”. The events in the story are beyond the limits of our narrator’s understanding, i.e., outside of his circle’s circumference.

If we had we access to the girl’s perspective, if we could read about how things seemed from her “center,” we would have read a different story and more facts would’ve been intelligible to us. We would have found out how she felt while practicing music with our narrator, we would have known the reason behind her invitation, and we might have even received an explanation for why our narrator found no a sign of the recital (Did he, for example, fail to go to the right address? Did he get the days mixed up?). With two centers, more facts would have been within the reach of our understanding, which (to follow the circle metaphor) we could describe as the circle having a larger circumference and being more inclusive.

Our narrator’s confusion is due to his exclusive reliance on his own point of view, i.e., his mistaken belief that the circle only has one center. He didn’t have enough interaction with the girl to see things from her position. The old man — which we could regard as the narrator’s inner archetype — finds our narrator in a state of confusion and his advice, accordingly, is to go beyond a single perspective that divides reality into things that either do or don’t make sense. Instead, the old man is urging our narrator to consider how everything can make sense, if only you consider the multiplicity of possible perspectives.

What is Murakami (or the narrator’s) reaction to the old man’s advice? There are, at least, two available options . First, the narrator could become more active and try to connect with others, increasing the number of “centers” within the circle, considering as many perspectives as he can. Or, second, he could imagine how he already is one center among many centers in an infinite circle. With that realization, he could simply let go of the desire to understand everything from his center. The narrator chooses this second option, consistent with Murakami’s general style (tending toward isolation and independence, sacrificing connection with others). As a result, he embrace the occasional unintelligibility of experience. He tells his friend how he goes with it, rather than trying to make sense of a confusing situation. He describes the situation as him being caught in a wave and he decides to simply move with the wave.

Let’s return to our question: What are the best things in life? In my reading, Murakami regards the best things in life (crème de la crème) to be the outcome of letting go of control and accepting the mysteries of experience. This means accepting the occasional failures of understanding. We could, of course, go a little beyond his attitude and add a complementary component, namely the decision to connect with others and try to understand other perspectives. With this strategy, the best things in life could, at least sometimes, result from understanding what was initially beyond our grasp.

This review was first published on Medium, where you can find my review of the other 7 short stories included in Murakami’s First Person Singular.

The Solitude of Teaching

The teacher’s solitude is a burden as much as it is a necessity. This necessary burden is the product of a boundary we ought to protect. The teacher must absorb his or her disappointments, rather than react to them immediately and impulsively. Although the classroom is a “home,” for both the teacher and the students, the teacher doesn’t always have to feel at home. The feeling of being home is something he or she achieves occasionally, while placed there.

Let’s turn to a metaphor. When you choose to arrive earlier at a meeting point, you must, of course, wait for others. Think of the teacher as someone who has arrived earlier at a meeting point. She is not a better human for that reason, but arriving early demands things from her. It demands patience and understanding. It demands that you stand in your position and wait, and keep in mind that you are waiting. If you choose to arrive earlier, then you must abide by the ethics of early arrival. When the students join you (if they join at all, and the possibility of them not joining poses its own demand), they might lack enthusiasm, they might not all arrive at the same time or with the same mindset. The teacher-student gathering remains an on-going process, an on-going challenge, often lacking synchrony. If the idea of rhythm shows up, it shows up as a question (“Is this our rhythm now?”). The person who arrives early might think with herself, “This silence, this solitude, will go away once others show up.” That is the error, the silence never goes away.

Photo: Shutterstock (downloaded from here)

The teacher, in this sense, has the most similarity with those students who don’t fit into the classroom, the student who feels like they don’t belong there, those who feel that lack of sympathy or synchrony. Without knowing it, the student on the margins of the classroom is the one most similar to the teacher (they are both strangers), even though it is only the teacher who must face the center from the margins with a sense responsibility. The solitude of the teacher can, therefore, becomes the means of bringing into view the presence of those students who don’t–at least initially–feel at home.

While editing this post, I was reminded of what Sam said in our recent conversation. He talks about “speaking into the void,” as a way of describing his experience of giving classroom lectures. If you happen to read this and also listen to that, you could perhaps let me know if there are connections (or important differences) that I am missing. The solitude that I feel like I must protect is perhaps the same thing that Sam describes as the void.