12/4/13

Pragmatism

She extracted one white tube and stared at it. It smelled like Cole. "I can't even get excited about seeing thirty, to tell you the truth."  
"That's how kids in high school feel. That's why we all smoke." 
-Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer 

11/6/13

William Carlos Williams Takes a Stand

I've lived the past few weeks in a daze of apathy, and it has felt remarkably pleasant. It's quite relieving to not care about your interactions with your peers, to embrace the fact that most of the time, people are too caught up in themselves to give much attention to caring about how you present yourself. It's a mindset that can be turned on at a moment's notice, a blockade that prevents investment. And it's scary how nice it feels. 

Fortunately, there are novels. Barbara Kingsolver published her essential anti-apathy novel, Animal Dreams, in 1990. It never really acquired the "classic" label that got attached to The Bean Trees and The Poisonwood Bible, but it's been the Kingsolver novel that I've most needed this year. As with all Kingsolver pieces, it is highly quotable and deliciously so, and Kingsolver seems to be a bit fed up with being subtle in this novel, so there are these fantastic bursts of passion that shock the reader into paying attention.

But anyway, I thought that this passage was sort of important -
Maybe it's true what they say, that as long as you're nursing your own pain, whatever it is, you'll turn your back on others in the same boat. You'll want to believe the fix they're in is their own damn fault.
And you'll believe that the fix you're in is your own damn fault, and you'll feel lonely, lonely. And really, you were born to be lonely. You are best so.

10/27/13

Contrived Origins

So I tried freehanding this post. About a week ago, I thought of an idea that, although I hope not, will earn me the reputation of a cynic.

There may be, now I repeat this is off my head, three sources of happiness that may be legitimate. That is, at least some people recognize each source: success, friendship and family, fulfiling a passion (which is closely related to success) and quenching our natural desires (wanting to eat, drink, sleep). This post offers some insight into the legitimacy of passion.

So why are some people disposed toward an activity or "passion", and is that disposition actually meaningful?

The former question can be intuitively explained: our environment usually cultivates our disposition. The son of a coach -- Pete Maverich is the classic example -- quickly attaches himself to the source of his father's profession. The businessman's son, having grown up in a business household, easily assumes the reins of his family business.

 But, of course, we have stories of rebels: The aspiring musician, whose scientific family rejects the arts, in turn rejects his family's beliefs to pursue his "passion"; the aspiring comedian, whose mining town values solidarity and communalism, travels to the city. Even in these cases, our environment shapes  our disposition. Maybe, as an example, the monotony of a rebel's live, in conjunction with his relationship to his family, drives the rebel to pursue a passion.

Readers will say this assessment is useless. Environment contributes, even for steadfast adherents of self-determinism, significantly to a person's character and his or her life. Readers may also raise a more important point. So what if environment shapes a person's passion? Does it mean, just because person X could have found person Y's passion were he in Y's position, that passion is any less powerful and inspiring. This is all well and true, but I have - and I am freehanding based on my observations - another observation. I think at this point I will earn the reputation I fear.

 We become -- and this echoes Cal Newport -- passionate only after first becoming good at some activity. Why? Because passion is predicated upon superiority. Our biological system, which still responds to the environment as if we lived 100,000 years ago (when we needed our system to behave in a survivalistic manner) compels us to value superiority. But instead of physical or sexual prowess, we've settled upon the endless development of the self as evidence of our prowess.

We value passion, because we want to feel superior. The moment we cease to feel superior, our passion is compromised. Because our interaction with others is dynamic, meaning we will inevitably and constantly encounter someone more capable than us, passion is often useless. There may be no purpose, thus, to our quest for superiority.

10/21/13

Psychology of Passion

The basis for this series's relevance is that passion potentially leads to unhappiness, because passion, very simply, cannot always be fulfilled. In contrast, as this post will explain,  psychology interprets passion in a more routine fashion that suggests we should be optimistic. 

Psychologists Celine Blanchard and Marylene Gagne, among others, have recently posited the existence of two types of passion, harmonious and obsessive passion. Their research is interesting, however, not because it unveils a categorization of passion easily identifiable in the lives of people, but because it implies that passion can assume very regular forms. 

While the West believes a passion takes on an interesting, almost-exotic, unroutine form, Blanchard (et. all) evaluate passion's categorization in areas like reading and talking with friends. Passion, first written into a 1959 paper, needs to follow seven criteria -- and talking with friends can qualify. 

This discrepancy can be accounted for. While some associate "dreams" with passion, thus accounting for the volatility and potential unhappiness at least I saw in passion, psychological research does not associate "dreams",  "goals" etc.  with passion. Rather, the passion of "psychology" is a source of tranquil, everlasting joy. It suggests the agrarian life rather than the city life.

Some interesting research:

"Passion is defined as a strong inclination toward an activity that people like, that they find important, and in which they invest time and energy."

Types of Passionate Activities and the Percentage of People Engaging in Each One
Activities Types of activities  /   % of participants
Individual sports/physical activity Cycling, jogging, swimming   /  34.85
Team sports Playing basketball, hockey, football   /  25.54
Passive leisure Listening to music, watching movies  /  15.05
Active music Playing the guitar, playing the piano  /  10.01
Reading Reading a novel, reading poetry  /  4.95
Active arts Painting, photography   /   3.96
Work/education Part-time work, reading in one’s area of studies  /  3.56
Interpersonal relationships, being with friends or family  /  1.98

10/18/13

Passion Hypothesis in Blogs

In exploring the importance of "passion" in Western society, it may be helpful to evaluate the theme's prevalence in mainstream media, foreseeing that older sources of Western writing (see last week's post) do not address "passion." At least in the US, mainstream novels, perhaps fortunately, do not address the theme, while novels that address the theme are relatively obscure. In this post, for that reason, we will explore the prevalence of "passion" among blogs. Of course, we anticipate that blogs - like novels - will be relatively obscure, but the short writing and quick access they allow for counteract their obscurity.

We first mention, to preclude this readership's potential doubts about "success blogs", that blogs and websites that explore career paths and success often compel readers to feel silly. They can produce disgust. But, this silliness is a reader's fault; success blogs and websites play only a minor role, if one at all, in generating silliness. Three reasons may govern why such readers experience silliness, perhaps better phrased as slight paranoia and dismay:

1) They expect a solution to their problems with success. 2) A mental disparity arises: reading about success, seemingly superficial, and applying it to the largesse of daily life and failure produces doubt. 3) They fear others tracing their search engine history to discover their insecurities.

The disgust a reader purportedly feels at disagreeing with another writer's views of success, after a reading a "success" blog, is therefore often illegitimate. Readers are insecure, not simply in disagreement with a writer's views, when they feel disgust. In short, we need to be open-minded if we want to fairly evaluate these blogs.

This site is arguably a leading "success" blog. Its foundation is built upon following dreams, passion,  the big-city complex, boyhood fantasy etc. Perhaps paradoxically, it infuses Western Philosophy with Eastern Philosophy to address success in strange ways.

Study Hacks is another "success" blog, authored by a professor of Computer Science at Georgetown, Cal Newport. While Newport's books (How to Become a Straight A Student, How to Win at College, How to Become a High-School Superstar) hint at the same silliness readers experience in reading conventional success blogs, his final book "So Good They Can't Ignore You" offers insight into the Passion Hypothesis*. Its fundamental thesis is that passion in our professional lives results from investing in a fied, rather than cultivating inherent interest. It may seem, at this point, that I espouse Newport's views, judging by the space and content I allot to this paragraph. But I ask that readers see my purpose as a presentation of viewpoints from both sides of a question. 

10/16/13

The Mockingjay Revisited

Three years have passed since the last installment of the Hunger Games trilogy, and in that time the hype has mostly died down, sporadically rekindled by film adaptations. Rereading Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay without fandom hysteria in the background still led me to the same conclusions I arrived at three years earlier: this book is pretty damn good. 

The unsophisticated, monologuey tone permeating this novel may lead one to expect poor writing, or at least the dramatic overseriousness that tends to accompany published amateurism. Neither is true. Collins has mastered figures of speech, unintrusively inserting them to detail the finer points of her story. 
“Did you love Annie right away, Finnick?” I ask.

“No.” A long time passes before he adds, “She crept up on me.”
I search my heart, but at the moment the only person I can feel creeping up on me is Snow. 
While the informal voice of the book firmly sets it in YA territory, Collins repeatedly explores “adult” themes, such as psychological abuse and prostitution. These subjects are dealt with both empathetically yet also in cold strategy: although Katniss’s shocked internal monologues are as human as anyone’s, the presence of the horrors never fails to move the plot along. Nothing in this book exists for itself. It is all one long litany of war grinding slowly on the hearts of its soldiers. 

It naturally follows that this novel would lack sex. That’s another thing. Despite the laundry list of violence – faces are melted off, people ripped apart, torture described as plainly as the weather – Mockingjay never strays into racy or exploitative territory. A refreshing departure from most of today’s literature. The romance is all-pervasive, certainly; it crops up every five pages, reiterations and restatements of a lopsided love triangle, but stays within the bounds of occasional kissing. 

This novel is special in its understanding of human relationships. Katniss learns to open her mind to unlikely allies and then deal with their deaths; she breaks charity with old friends. The wounds never truly heal, another unusuality in YA lit. 

In the majority of the YA genre, sides are split cleanly; you are either on the main character’s side or you are not. You are a good person or you are not. You are loyal or traitorous. Strong or weak. Right or wrong. Mockingjay (the series as a whole, actually) does away with these dichotomies: there is President Coin, leader of the “good guys,” but in the end just another autocrat. Or is she? Katniss decides so and kills her, but then again, after her sister’s death, Katniss was all for another round of child gladiatorial combat, given that the victims were rich and privileged. And is that any kind of thing for a hero to be supporting?

Katniss Everdeen is a brilliant main character because of her character deficits, not in spite of them. An appalling trend in literature today is the usage of the protagonist as a mouthpiece, a proponent of an idea or a morality. Main characters are frequently used to explain some Important Life Lesson™ to the audience, which is a logical occupation, for stories are born of conflict, and if nothing is learned at the end then there really is no point to it all. But the real problem comes when the author uses their character as a bully pulpit, playing on natural reader sympathies to advocate an agenda. For goodness’ sake, we want to read a book, not a sermon! 

Collins’ biggest victory lies in her ability to sidestep ingrained character roles; her second greatest achievement is a mastery of human interactions. Mockingjay showcases these two powers beautifully, and while the unsophisticated manner of its sentences may turn off readers accustomed to classics, and the excessive gore inside its pages may turn off those habituated to YA, it is definitely worth a read. Even three years later.