Friday, May 17, 2019


What is the source of mental energy in daily life? I'm sure there are many answers out there, as well as many who think this is nonsense. My understanding of the answer is captured well in the following quote from Tana French's novel, ``The Secret Place.''

You like things to be beautiful, Conway had said, and been right. Over my own dead body was I going to stake myself down somewhere, being someone, that didn't have all the beautiful I could cram into me. For ugly I could've stay where I started ...  Call me arrogant, uppity, me the council-home kind thinking I deserved more. I've been sweating it since before I was old enough to understand the though: I was going to be more.
If I had to get there without friends, I could do it. Had been doing it.  I'd never met anyone who brought me somewhere I wanted to stay; looked at me and saw someone I wanted to be for good; anyone who was worth giving up the more I wanted down the line.
It landed inside me the, there under the dead weight of the shadow of Kilda's, too late. That light I had seen on Holly and her mates, so bright it hurt, the rare thing I had come into that school looking to find and to envy; I had thought it came to them in the glow of old wood. I had been wrong. It had come from them. From the way they gave things up for each other, stripped branches off their future and set them ablaze. What had felt like beautiful to me on the other side of today, balustrades and madrigal, those were nothing. I had been missing the heart of it, all along.
Mackey had taken one sniff of me, known the whole story. ...  Watched me fucked Kennedy over, and known exactly what was missing out of a person who would do that.   ---pp.353-4
Thursday, May 23, 2019: Energy is the capacity to deal with the element of luck (chance, randomness) in life. It creates an interesting alternative perspective for assessing philosophical issues like ``moral luck'' (see here for a good discussion of moral luck:


Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Reality, Description, Name

What is the nature of our interactions with (objective) reality? The following quotes from Partick Modiano's ``Missing Person'' outline the tenuous relation between our mind and the outside reality through mental schemes (images, sounds, ...):

A mental picture flashed before me, like those fragments of some fleeting dream which one tries to hold on to in waking, so as to be able to reconstruct the whole dream. I saw myself walking through a dark Paris, and opening the door to this building ....

... Behind the glass panels of the door, I could see the staircase and I wanted to climb it slowly, to go through all the motions I used to and retrace my steps.
I believe that the entrance-halls of buildings still retain the echo of footsteps of those who used to cross them and who have since vanished. Something continues to vibrate after they have gone, fading waves, but which can still be picked up if one listens carefully. Perhaps, after all, I never was this Pedro McEvoy, I was nothing, but waves passed through me, sometimes faint, sometimes stronger, and all these scattered echoes afloat in the air crystallized and there I was.   --- p. 84

The repeatability of (objective) reality acts as an anchor for our mind, it is the material root of what evolves into our description of the world. In this sense, our understanding of the world starts with the description that is symbolized by ``Name.''

I am trying to remember the name of Freddie's friend. The one you pointed out in the photograph ...


We stood at the edge of the slope. He had taken out his pipe again, and was cleaning it with a strange little instrument. Inwardly I repeated this name I'd been given at birth, this name by which I had been called throughout a whole section of my life and which, for a number of people, had conjured up my face. Pedro.   --- pp. 64-5

Our relation with Name, our descriptions of the world, is puzzling. The modern human believes himself the author and creator, and yet, he finds himself in a near constant state of despair over his inability to control his fate or even approach things he holds most dearly:

I did not dare continue. Why am I so diffident and apprehensive, when it comes to something that means a lot to me?   --- pp. 77-8

The post-modernism warns us the we are guided, even created, by our narratives. Given the obscure sources of our consciousness and the deep roots of our mental processes, we do not really know how our basic descriptions of the world come about. Therefore, modern human is in a state of constant revolt against his master, the Name.

What are the historical solutions human race has devised for the constant revolt problem? The pre-modern solution is social supremacy, in which the good of the society is imposed on individuals through customs, religions, and culture. In effect, man has created society as the main object of revolt. The modern culture, however, has freed individuals from the subjugation by society, and in its place, has defined an individual essence, the true self, as the arbitrator of the authentic self and being. Conforming to that essence of authenticity has become the main yardstick that the individual has to measure himself against constantly and hence the implicit object of revolt. Hence, Name is the true self?!?

There are many indications that the concept of a ``true self'' is more of an illusion. What is the third alternative for a post-modern individual, then?

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Lift, Shift, Let down

I admit that I have started reading another novel by Tana French, ``The Secret Place,'' even though I am sure at some point I am going to regret this choice. A few quotes:

I went after her, up those stairs. Girls poured around me, flying hair and flying laughs. The air felt full and glossy, felt high, felt shot through with sun at mad-dash angles; sun whirling along the banisters like water, snatching colors and spinning them in the air; lifting me, catching me everywhere and rising. I felt different, changing. Like today was my day, if I could just figure out how. Like danger, but my danger, conjured up by a high-tower wizard specially for me; like my luck, sweet tricky urgent luck, tumbling through the air, head or tails?
I'd never been anywhere like this before, but it felt like it took me back. It had that pull, all down the length of your bones. It made me think words I hadn't thought since I was a young fella ...   --- p. 48


We considered that option, yes. Several teachers were in favor of it, for exactly the reason you mention. I was against. In part because it would have excluded our boarders, who have no unsupervised internet access; but primarily because young girls slip between worlds very easily, Detective. They lose their grasp on reality. I don't believe they should be encouraged to use the internet more than necessary, let alone to make it the focus of their most intense secrets. I believe they should be kept firmly rooted in the real world as much as possible.  --- p. 53


By the time we were finishing up, the good has gone out of that. I'd a taste in my mouth and a turn in my stomach like gone off cider, fizzy and strong and wrong. Not because it was such bad stuff there, it wasn't; they were right, Conway and McKenna in their different ways, we were a long way from my old school. .... A lot of it was sweet, even.  ... Some was dead creative; art, near enough, better than what you see in some galleries. One card was cut out in the shape of a window frame full of snowflakes---fine as lace, must have taken hours; scraps of a girl's face behind the frame, too snowed over to recognize, screaming. Tiny letters cut out of the edge. You all think you see the whole of me.
That there was what was giving me the off-cider feel. That gold air transparent enough to drink, those clear faces, that happy flood of chatter; I had liked all that. Loved it. And underneath it all, hidden away tight: this. Not just one messed-up exception, not just a handful. All of them.
I wondered, hoped, maybe most of it was bollix. Girls bored, having a mess about. Then thought maybe that was just as bad. Then thought: no.   --- p. 58

There is a very strange sense of balance here: between beauty and luck, reality and unreality, darkness and deception. Quite amazing.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019:  I finished ``The Secret Place'' and it's actually much better, less bleak and pessimistic, than the other two novels I read from Tana French. I figured why she is so depressingly cynical in her other books, because she ultimately believes in magic as the only source of goodness in life. I don't think she will admit it, but for her the life is full of frustration and hopelessness except in fleeting magical moments.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Depression, Boredom

I have been reading Jussi Adler-Olsen's Department Q series from the beginning. I just finished the third novel in the series, ``A Conspiracy of Faith.'' Here is a quote:

Isabel had often felt depressed about her life. Loneliness was an ever-present shadow. In the long evening winter she had often succumbed to the darkest thoughts. But now, at this moment, her mind was quite differently engaged. Now, with vengeance spurring her on, with the responsibility for the lives of two children in her hands, and their kidnapper, Satan personified, speeding along in the car in front of them, Isabel knew that she wanted to live. She knew that no matter how awful the world might appear, she could find her own place in it. ---pp. 303-4

I do not like to admit that I may still read Carlos Castaneda's books from time to time. Even though, in all likelihood, a lot of what he wrote was fiction, but it is good fiction. Here is a quote from ``Tales of Power.''

In the beginning, one has to talk to the tonal. It is the tonal that has to relinquish control. But it should be made to do so gladly. For example, your tonal has relinquished some controls without much struggle, because it became clear to it that, had it remained the way it was, the totality of you would be dead by now. In other words, the tonal is made to give up unnecessary things like self-importance and indulging, which only plunge it into boredom. The whole trouble is that the tonal clings to those things when it should be glad to rid itself of that crap. The task then is to convince the tonal to become free and fluid. That's what a sorcerer needs before anything else, a strong free tonal. The stronger it gets the less it clings to its doings, and the easier it is to shrink it. ...  ---p. 156

To me a lot of this (clinging, self-importance, and indulgence) has to do with deep fears and insecurities, but it's interesting that they ultimately lead one to boredom and depression, according to the quote.

Monday, April 29, 2019

The Witch Elm: Luck

``The Witch Elm,'' (Amazon link)  the latest novel by Tana French is a difficult novel to read and in that sense similar to her first novel, ``In the Woods.'' (Amazon Link, also see this review). For me her books (the two I've read!) are too dark, depressing, and sadomasochistic. I may even go as far as saying that I hate her cynic view of life and human condition. Nevertheless, she is a very good observer with an excellent command of writing, and highly sophisticated imagination.

``The Witch Elm'' is at its core about `luck', how one can approach, delineate and understand it; and why one should be careful about it, up to the point of being respectful. It opens with the following:

I have always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person. .... I managed to go through life without any of the standard misfortunes you hear about. ... Not that I spent much time thinking about this, but when it occurred to me, it was with a satisfying sense that everything was going exactly as it should.


And yet; and yet. It matters; matters, as far as I can see---for whatever that's worth, at this point---more than anything. It's taken me this long to start thinking about what luck can be, how smoothly and deliciously deceptive, how relentlessly twisted and knotted in on its own hidden places, and how lethal. pp. 1-2

The last line above capture her overall cynicism and hopeless view of human life.
And the novel closes with the following:

Maybe this is why I still consider myself a lucky person: now more than ever, I can't afford not to. If I've realized nothing else, you see, in the long strange time since that April night, I've realized this: I used to believe that luck was a thing outside me, a thing that governed only what did and didn't happen to me; ...  I believed that if I were to lose my luck I would be losing a thing separate from myself, ... something valuable but in the end far from indispensable; I took for granted that without it I would still be me, ... Now I think I was wrong. I think my luck was built into me, the keystone that cohered my bones, the golden thread that stitched together the secret tapestries of my DNA; I think it was the gem glittering at the fount of me, coloring everything I did and every word I said. And if somehow that has been excised from me, and if in fact I am still here without it, then what am I?  p.509
There is, of course, a feminist, politically correct, #MeToo, reading of these paragraphs, and I am not surprised if Tana French believes in that superficial reading. Yet, she describes amazingly how the connection with luck is the essence of our connection with life itself:

... I found my Xanax and my painkillers ... and spread them on the bed. ...
I had thought about it before, of course I had ... But when it came down to it I had never gone through with it, never even tried. I had believed it was because of Melissa, because of my mother, my father .... But it had never been that. It had been because of that tiny ludicrous spark, somewhere deep in the core of my mind, that had believed things could turn around. Somewhere on the other side of that sheet of trick glass, my own life was waiting for me, warm and bright as summer, beckoning.
Always one more miracle, always one more chance. ... I'm lucky, my luck will hold. ... p. 487

In the above, luck is described as something that is very close to what we can ``irrational hope,'' and sits at the very core of our being and life. For me, rationality is our embrace of the objective, repeatable reality of our lives, whereas luck or hope orient us toward the unknowable and unexplainable.

One of the main tensions in our lives is between (objective) reality, or repeatable, understandable truth, and (unrepeatable, unexplainable) luck. At the boundary of the two realms, reality and luck, lurk our fears and insecurities. One of the main undercurrents of the novel is how our insecurities, deep and sustained fears, destroy or disfigure our connection with the luck and makes us over-dependent on reality/repeatability. It's fascinating to compare the nature of fears versus deep security in the following paragraphs and also the great pull toward predictability/repeatability/reality for someone deeply affected by trauma:

The real problem, I suppose, was that my mother was badly shaken up. She put a lot of willpower into covering it, but I knew the artificial, over-calm cheerfulness from childhood crises .... Occasionally the facade slipped and a terrible, raw horror showed through, and that sent me into paroxysms of sheer fury .... p. 44

In the early evening my father came. ....  Mostly he would ask a few polite questions about how I was feeling and whether I needed anything, then pull a rolled and battered paperback from his coat pocket .... settle himself in the visitor's chair and read quietly for hours on end. If I had been capable of finding anything restful or comforting, I think it would have been that: the regular rhythm of his page-turning, the occasional soft huff of laughter, the clean lines of his profile against the darkening window. Often I fell asleep while he was there, and those were the only sleeps in that place that weren't ragged and precarious, shadowed by tainted dreams and by the possibility of never waking up. pp. 46-7

And there was Mellissa ...
... I appreciated was she was doing and I tried my best to listen and to laugh at the right places, but my concentration was shot, the nonstop flow of talk made my head hurt, and---I felt ungrateful and traitorous, but I couldn't help it---her stories seemed like such trivial fluff, so minuscule and weightless, next to the vast dark mass that filled my mind and my body and the air around me. I would end up drifting, finding pictures in the folds of the rumpled sheet or picking compulsively at my memory of that night in search of new images ....  pp. 47, 49

The last part (from p. 49) above is quite deep in showing that fears (created by traumatic events) have such a different shape and weight to them that they can significantly warp the mental space around themselves. This is a strong theme in the novel and appears over and over. Moreover, influenced by the western culture's emphasis on individual identity, Tana French ultimately has to connect the theme of deep fears with the issue of true/genuine self/identity and the perpetual search for it:

... But now, with DNA analysis, it's more complicated. People are coming to me because their analysis didn't turn out the way they expected. ...  They're unsettled and they're frightened, and that they want from me isn't the lovely presents. any more; it goes much deeper. They're afraid that they're not who they always thought they were. and they want me to find them reassurance. And we both know it might not turn out that way. I'm not the fairy godfather any more; now I'm some dark arbiter, probing through their hidden places to decide their fate. .... p. 132.

Our lives are marked by constant arrival of new fears and occasional traumas which change our internal balance between reality and luck. In response to them, if we are lucky, we find safe and secure places in rituals and repetitions:

Little rituals. ...  Looking back, I'm amazed by how quickly they took shape, those rituals, how solid and smooth and immutable they felt after only a few days; how quickly it came to feel as though we'd been there for years and would be there, all of us, for years more.
It's difficult to give a clear description of my state of mind during those weeks; ...  It wasn't that I was getting better, exactly. In some ways and to some extent, I was ... but I was no nearer feeling like myself again, or even really like a human being. It was more that that didn't seem to matter so much, at least not in any immediate way. Every day included plenty of things that should have sent me into a full-on spiral ... and yet I wasn't a shaking wreck pacing my room and gnawing at my revenge fantasies; although I did feel like a meltdown was the only, the inevitable response, I also felt like it could wait till some other time. I suppose it was a bit like being mauled to rags by a savage animal, and then somehow dragging myself to a safe place and slamming the gates: I could still hear the animal padding and snuffling outside, I knew it has no intention of leaving and sooner or later I would have to go out there again, but at least for now I could stay in shelter. pp. 133-4
The second paragraph above is quite amazing in providing a deep and unusual insight into the working of rituals in healing trauma. It was very shocking to me as a description of passage from childhood innocence, into the fright of trauma, and then back into a middle ground that is not the original land of innocence anymore: you cannot undue the damage done by fears and trauma, but you learn how to create a distance between those fears and your response.


Understanding, knowing, agency, identity, dark side of knowledge


It should have felt even more horrifying this way---targeted, stalked, hunted down---but it didn't. If they had come after me specifically, for something I'd done or something I had, then I wasn't just roadkill, nor just some object to be mown down because it happened to be in their way: I was real, a person; I had been the crucial factor at the heart of the whole thing, rather than a meaningless irrelevance to be ignored, tossed aside. And if I was a person within all this, then I could do something about it.
My mind was working more clearly than it had in months, a stark crystalline clarity that took my breath away like snowy air. I had forgotten what it was like to think this way. pp. 252-3
Bit by bit ... they reconstructed the evening for me ... As they talked, my memory twisted and flicked into life---fitfully, almost playfully, filling in a vivd sweep of images here and just a brushstroke there and then skimming away, leaving behind tantalizing patches of shadow and blankness. ....
Except----I realized with a slow sinking, as Sean and Dec worked their way through the evening---there was nothing there. I had been hoping for the vital fragment that would bring all pieces together; ...  Worse: I'd been so focused on that hope that I'd forgotten to consider what it would do to me ... It felt like they were talking about someone else, someone I had been close to a long time ago .... The longing to have him back was like a physical force sucking my guts out, leaving me hollow.
The thing that saved me was, weirdly, the fact that I had brought it on myself. The vortexing sensation was as strong and as hideous as ever, but for the first time, it hadn't been slammed into me out of nowhere; I was using it, riding it, for my own reasons. ...  pp. 272-3


... I don't need a hobby, I don't need to keep busy. I need to find out why the fuck I just got accused of murder.  ...

The look of defeat on her face---I would have given everything to show her what I was seeing, how this could transform everything ...  p. 304

``What? What do you think you're going to get out of this?"

``You heard them out there. ... They know something. I'm going to find out what it is.''

``Why? Who cares what they know? What could they know that'll make things better? pp. 340-1

Now that I was on my own the stoneover had rushed back up, a nasty mishmash of physical and mental, all-consuming sapping despair and a sense of doom that seemed to come not from my mind but from deep inside my stomach and my spine. Melissa had been right all along, going after answers was the stupidest thing I could possibly have done, and now it was too late.

Part of me was still clinging to the slim chance that I had got it all wrong, and if I could just clear my head I would be able to figure out the real story. ...  p. 360



Seizure, fear of not knowing:

 everything looked strange, all of a sudden. Different. Frightening. And that's all.   p. 299

Constant fear, parallel worlds based on security/fear factor:


... You've got to remember, we were used to being scared. It was basically our default mode, by that stage. p. 441

... The world I had been blithely bouncing through had been so utterly unrelated to this one running along its dark subterranean track, I couldn't make the two of them click together in my mind. ... p. 442


Agency, expectations, fear, impermanence

 ... everyone had pegged me as the good girl, all smart and serious and well-behaved; I didn't feel like there was any way to break out of that, or even figure out what I wanted to do. ... Afterwards, ... didn't feel like so much of an issue. ... other people weren't as scary ... because I knew I didn't have to take their shit. Not that I was going to whip out the nuclear option any time someone cut in front of me in the bus queue, but just knowing I could actually do something made the world a lot less dangerous. And I definitely didn't give a shit that I was supposed to be the good girl.  ...  p. 445

... The thing was ... after a while I started noticing that it felt like what I did mattered. Like it had weight. I'd never felt that before. All those campaign I got involved with in school, writing millions of letter for Amnesty and fundraising for places that had droughts, and they never changed anything; ... p. 446

... I mean, yeah, I genuinely was crying for the guy being tortured in Myanmar, but I was also crying because it felt like I was nothing. Made of fluff. Feathers. I could bash myself against things and they wouldn't budge an inch; they wouldn't notice I was there. ... Killing Dominic, though. Whatever you think about the moral issues, you have to admit it made a difference. A concrete one.   p. 446

... They'd be out of my life soon anyway. Nothing lasts forever, and I don't mean that in an emo way, I'm being factual. Dominic was enormous in my life for years, this huge presence looming over every single thing, I went to sleep thinking about him and had nightmares about him all night and woke up in the morning dreading him. And we did this one thing, it only took a minute or two, and he was gone. Just gone. It's hard to think of anything as permanent, after that. ...

... I am happy the way I am. It's got its downside ... But I like the feeling that anything's possible. ... p. 448

I don't know if I would've had the guts to have kids, if none of that had happened. It's not like Dominic was this once-off supervillain ; the world's full of people like him. If there's absolutely fuck-all you can do about them except lie back and take it, and then listen to people explaining how it's not a big deal? Bring kids into that? Now ... at least I know, if anyone tries . to fuck with my kids, I've got a decent shot at taking them down.  p. 450

Has there every been someone ... who treated you like you weren't a person? Not because of anything you've done; just because of who you were. Someone who did whatever they wanted to you. ... And you were totally powerless to do anything about it.   p. 451


Different aspects of deep fear and insecurity:


I didn't have it in me; I had nothing left with which to debate this, assess this, think about this at all. ...  p. 455

It was worse after that. With nothing and no one to keep me on a schedule, my body clock went completely out of whack. ... When I groped for something to tell me what room I was in, my hands found unfamiliar objects ...  Things turned up in strange places ....

When I thought about Susanna and Leon it was, strangely enough, not with horror or condemnation or anger but with envy. They came to my mind in strong indelible black that gave them a kind of glory; Dominic's death defined them, immutably, not for better of for worse but simply for what they were, and it took my breath away. My own life blurred and smeared in front of my eyes; my outlines had been scrubbed out of existence ... so that I bled away at every margin into the world.  p. 459

I think Rafferty knew. I think wherever he was, miles away, pulling out his notebook at some murder scene or raising the sail on a rugged little boat, he raised his head and sniffed the wind and smelled me, finally ready.

He came for me on a cold late afternoon that smelled of burning tires. ... 

He looked taller than I remembered him, ruddier, strong high sweeps of jaws and cheekbone more sharply defined. For a moment, in the gray light, I wasn't positive it was him. But the voice, rich and warm as wood, that was Rafferty all right. ...

... He strolled closer, across the terrace. He made my adrenaline spike and keep spiking. There was something around him, a buzz and thrum, a vitality that ate up the air like fire and left me nothing to breathe. ...    ---pp. 459-60

I couldn't even come up with a flash of horror. Honestly it wasn't Susanna I was tired of, not really; it was me, wronged innocent, white knight, cunning investigator, killer, selfish oblivious dick, petty provocateur, take your pick, what does it matter? it'll all change again tomorrow, it's all up for grabs. This formless thing, boneless, grotesque, squashed like Play-Doh into whatever shape the boss of the day wanted to see: I was sick of it.  ---p. 475

... I could have been like them, changed, tempered. I could have come to that night in my apartment as someone who could come out of it unbroken, if only they had believed in me enough to bring me along.   ---p. 476

Rafferty said, ``I want my man. Or my woman.''

That spike of terror went through me again. He was like a raptor, not cruel, not good or evil, only and utterly what he was. That purity of it, unbreakable, was beyond anything I can imagine.

And this is one of the moments I come back to over and over, one of the things I can't forgive myself; because part of me knew better, a part of me knew I shouldn't ask. But it seemed to me that an answer from him would make sense of everything, would be absolute and golden as an answer from some god. ``Why me?'' I said. ...   ---p. 477


Futility of actions (reactions) based on deep fear and insecurity:

It came back to me bit by bit, falling into my mind with a slow, irrevocable, wintry calm. It had seemed like a heroic thing, at the time; it had seemed to light the whole sky with its own savage blaze of redemption. In the bleak morning all that was gone. Rafferty was dead and I has killed him. Not to save Leon or Susanna, like I had believed I had killed Dominic, or even to save myself, but simply because my brain was fucked enough that I had thought it was a good idea. And now he was dead. Somewhere not too far away, someone was starting to wonder where he was, why he hadn't called, hadn't come home.


I was waiting for the thing Susanna and Leon had talked about, the grand transformation. Well yeah there was that too.  The steely power that had come to Susanna, no one will ever fuck with me again. ... The airy weightlessness that had risen in Leon, none of it can hurt me, and off I'll go to find something new and perfect. In the firelight they had shone as if they were made of some strange element, unknowable and indestructible. I waited to feel my own flesh transmute, to rise from the floor with my wounds healing themselves and my scars vanishing and everything at last making sense.

Nothing happened. All that came to me was the thought of Rafferty's wife or girlfriend or whatever he had, starting to be frightened ... his kids maybe ...   ---pp. 484-5


On the complex relation between irreversibility (property of objective reality, time, entropy, life/death) and luck (hope):


... It had been because of that tiny ludicrous spark, somewhere deep in the core of my mind, that had still believed things could turn around. ...

Always one more miracle, always one more chance. ... I'm lucky, my luck will hold.

Only now there was a dead detective in my garden ....

...  I had killed someone, and I always would have. It was always going to be like this. There was no undoing this ... Instead it would grind me away till I fit around its own immutable shape.

What I failed to recognize after that night in my apartment---even though it had been right there, and crucial, the whole time---was that no one had been dead. That was why that spark had refused to go out: ruined, half-witted, staggering, I had still been alive. While there is life there's hope: banal enough to make you retch, and yet it had turned out to be true. Now Rafferty was dead and there was no place left for luck or miracle or last chances. ... 

I swallowed the pills with palmfuls of water from the bathroom tap ....  ---pp. 487-8

There was something dizzying about it, about the fact that Tiernan could never have dreamed where that would lead. It must have seemed like such a small thing, just a tasty little lollipop of glee to suck on when the world refused to feed him what he deserved; nothing more, just like my prank emails to Dominic had been nothing more.  ---p. 504


Sunday, April 21, 2019

Hobbies, Identity, Mission

Long excerpts from ``Red, White, Blue,'' by Lea Carpenter:

You don't have many hobbies as a case officer. You acquire the hobbies of the source you're developing. Your versatility in acquiring new interests is critical to your success. ...  And you are developing new skill sets and passion while under the cover of your day job, so your days become busy. You build the architecture of the larger lie of who you are through the architecture of the little lies, your likes and dislikes, your desire to become the person your source needs you to be. This illusory architecture is in service of the mission. This architecture is the mission. You are constantly learning new cover details ...  This is increasingly how you spend your downtime, memorizing who you are about to become, forgetting who you once were. Memorize, forget, memorize, forget. Repeat. At any time you will have five to tend different mobile phones for five to ten different yous. At night, you will lay those phones out in a line on the desk ... You remove the batteries. ...  That was tradecraft, Anna, a table full of phones.
A table full of phones is not a life.
If you have only one asset and one phone, then that's one you can never turn off, the one from which you can never remove the battery ... It becomes the source of everything. A device. Or, more precisely, a voice on the other end of a line you can neither predict nor control.


Friday, April 19, 2019

Clean Action + Affect Regulation

A few lines from ``The Feral Detective,'' a novel by Jonathan Lethem.

I tried to keep myself on an efficiency basis, my actions clean and unsentimental, so I didn't dwell on Heist, on fantasies of rescue, more than was useful. I didn't have to---I was headed straight for him, even if I hadn't a clue how.   p. 230

Next, some passages from Chapter 11 (Mentalized Affectivity in the Clinical Setting) of the book, ``Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self,'' by Peter Fonagy, Gyurgy Gergely, Elliot Jurist, and Mary Target.

... mentalized affectivity is a sophisticated kind of affect regulation that denotes how affects are experienced through the lens of self-reflexivity. ...
... Affect regulation is a process of crafting mental states in accordance with a sense of agency. ... p. 435

... the more familiar one is with one's subjective experience, the more effective regulation can be. ...
...  What distinguishes mentalized affectivity from other points of view---like the one where cognition is applied to determine and alter affective experience---is that the agent remain within of recaptures the affective state. ... there is a profound difference between abstract self-understanding and the kind of insight that is mediated by live affective experience.
Through mentalized affectivity, one acquires a more complex understanding of one's own affective experience. This will often mean that affects are rendered into new and/or subtler shapes; however, it does not necessarily require that affects are transformed in nature. It is possible that mentalized affectivity directs us to appreciate new meanings in the same affects, not simply to create new affects. ....   In its essence, mentalized affectivity designates the human need to fathom and re-interpret one's affect and is particularly exemplified through the internal expression of affects.  p. 436

There are three elements of mentalized affectivity: identifying, modulating, and expressing affects. Each of the three elements has a basic and more complex form. As we imagine it, identifying affects is the prelude to modulating them.  ...  Similarly, expressing one's affects is contingent here upon modulation; on our account, though, it is also important to realize that affects can be expressed inwardly as well as outwardly. ...
... In its most basic form, identifying affects will mean naming the basic emotions that one feels. ...
The complex aspect of identifying affects is exemplified by cases in which there are links---sometimes hidden ones---between affects. ...   Thus, beyond the task of naming affects, identifying affects can include the process of discerning the relation among distinct affects.  p. 437-8

In its basic form, modulating affects will mean that the affect is altered in some way. This can entail modifications in intensity or duration, or it can refer to more subtle adjustments, where the affect is refined. Modulation can mean that the affect is sustained as well as adjusted upward or downward.
The complex form of modulating affectivity concerns the revaluing of affects. ....  through revaluing affects one comes to have a greater sense of the complexity of one's affective experience.  ...  Modulating the affect through revaluation would mean taking one's own experience and history into account. p. 438

The third element of affectivity is the expression of affects. At the most rudimentary level, we can distinguish between the choice to restrain expression or to let it flow. ...  affects can be expressed inwardly. ...  The inward expression of affects is predicated upon the existence of a representational system that gives us an option other than outward expression.
... One might understand psychotherapy as experimenting with the inward expression of affects through expressing them within an atmosphere that is contained and safe compared to the real world.  ...  psychotherapy can be understood as relying on a kind of pretend mode of functioning in which the therapist acts as a playful parent and thus serves to promote fantasy and imagination in the way that a patient regulates his affects. Indeed, it is often an indication of progress in psychotherapy to observe that a patient has begun to express his affects inwardly. ...
The inward expression of affects is especially consistent with self-reflexivity. ...  mentalized affectivity ... entails reflecting on one's affects while one remains within an affective state, rather than from a position of distance. In moving to express the affect, it can be sufficient to let one feel the affect anew without having it emerge in the world. ...  this account differs from one in which one recognizes one's anger [affect] from an intellectual standpoint. Mentalized affectivity goes further in pushing us to own our affects: being able to express affects inwardly adds an option in situations where outward expression is not desirable.
Expressing affects takes on greater complexity as a form of communication. ...  we can distinguish between an expression that occurs without regard for others and one that occurs within the context of a dialogue with others. ... One wants the other person(s) not just to know what one feels, but also to understand and perhaps respond to this feeling.  .... there is something more self-conscious about the communicating affects that reflects an investment in intimate and social relationships. ...  pp. 439-40

My intuition is that ``affect regulation,'' and specifically ``mentalized affectivity,'' is less related to what these authors describe than with establishing direct and exploitable connections between different affective mental states. The best state to attempt such connections is when we are in a pleasant (good) state of mind. Instead of indulging in the good state, one needs to consciously create a tunnel to another unpleasant (bad) state. That way, when the bad state happens, one can reverse the same route and attain the good state. Ultimately, all affective states are temporary and the whole point of affect regulation is to "comprehend" this transience at a very deep level. (This idea is closely related to the religious notions of sin and redemption, but that is a long detour.)

The connection needs to be straight allowing a direct line of sight between the two states. As the first quote indicates,  this is closely related to clean actions. Clean actions are associated with a direct path to an extremely (emotionally) valuable goal or state.


Monday, May 20, 2019:  Affect regulation, the art of passing through difficult and tumultuous emotional states, has a strong physical component. Hence, we see the emergence of addictions, as well as sports and different types of physical exertion, as regulation mechanisms. Here is a quote from Carlos Castaneda's ``Tales of Power'' with an interesting breathing method:

It was a technique he had taught me, years before, to use in moments of great danger, fear, or stress. It consisted of pushing the diaphragm down while taking four sharp gasps of air through the mouth, followed by four deep inhalations and exhalations through the nose. He has explained that the gasps of air had to be felt as jolts in the middle part of the body, and that keeping the hands tightly clasped, covering the naval, gave strength to the midsection and helped to control the gasps and the deep inhalations, which had to be held for a count of eight as one pressed the diaphragm down. The exhalations were done twice through the nose and twice through the mouth in a slow or accelerated fashion, depending on one's preference.   --- p. 166 
I tried it a couple of times today and it seems to have some merits.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Research and Social Responsibility (+ Talmud)

Passages from the introduction of Thomas Piketty's book, ``Capital in the Twenty-First Century.''

Intellectual and political debate about the distribution of wealth has long been based on an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact.
To be sure, it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of the intuitive knowledge that everyone acquires about contemporary wealth and income levels, even in the absence of  any theoretical framework or statistical analysis. Film and literature, nineteenth-century novels especially, are full of detailed information about the relative wealth and living standards of different social groups, and especially about the deep structure of inequality, the way it is justified, and its impact on individual lives.  ...  novelists depicted the effects of inequality with a verisimilitude and evocative power that no statistical or theoretical analysis can match.
Indeed, the distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers. ...  The concrete, physical reality of inequality is visible to the naked eye and naturally inspires sharp but contradictory political judgments. ...  there will always be a fundamentally subjective and psychological dimension to inequality, which inevitably gives rise to political conflict that no purportedly scientific analysis can alleviate. Democracy will never be supplanted by a republic of experts---and that is a very good thing.
Nevertheless, the distribution questions also deserves to be studied in a systematic and methodical fashion. Without precisely defined, methods, and concepts, it is possible to see everything and its opposite. ...  Given this dialogue of the deaf, ... , there is a role for research that is at least systematic and methodical if not fully scientific. ...  Social science research is and always will be tentative and imperfect. ... But by patiently searching for facts and patterns and calmly analyzing the economic, social, and political mechanisms that might explain them, it can inform democratic debate and focus attention on right questions. It can help to redefine the terms of debate, unmask certain preconceived or fraudulent notions, and subject all positions to constant critical scrutiny. In my view, this is the role that intellectuals, including social scientists, should play, as citizens like any other but with the good fortune to have more time and others to devote themselves to study (and even to be paid for it---a signal privilege).

And here are some passages from an article (opinion piece) by Daniella Greenbaum Davis

In today’s impolite society, when a person says or tweets something absurd or nonsensical, the widespread instinct seems to be to pounce: to dismiss it, condemn it and sometimes even to silence it. In the Talmud, the response is quite different. Even crazy ideas stir the lofty arguers of the Talmud to look inward, wondering whether they might be missing something.

The Talmud features two overarching schools of thought that are almost constantly in conflict: Beit Shammai, or the house of Shammai, and Beit Hillel, or the house of Hillel. .....
The Talmud tells the story of a three-year debate between the two houses. After all that time, the rabbis — mere mortals — are no closer to deciding the law. It’s time to call in backup. A voice descends from the heavens and declares that both opinions are the word of God; however, the divine voice also declares that the law is in accordance with the opinion of the house of Hillel.

If God’s answer stumped you, you’re not alone. The compilers of the Talmud were likewise confused. The answer could form the manual on disagreement that the United States could use right now.

The Talmud explains that the house of Hillel had its teaching established as law because, in the context of the debate, its members were patient and decent and kind, and because they remained so even when they were being challenged. Moreover, at the house of Hillel, educators taught students both their own teachings and the teachings of the house of Shammai. And when they were teaching a dispute, they went so far as to teach the Shammai teachings first, out of deference.


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Trust and Illusion, Choice and Calmness

Passages from the ``Red, White, Blue,'' a novel by Lea Carpenter:

What they do to you over those months in this elegant laboratory is a test of trust. If you lie in bed long enough looking at one of those alarms, you begin to doubt. You begin to doubt yourself. Even if you know you are being observed, over time human nature---or let's call it desire----prevails. Over time, people are going to do whatever they are going to do to survive.

So in this one place, which technically does not exist, you find another place, which literally does not exist. The former has no map though the latter does. It takes attention to remember where the real ends and the illusion begins. Later, you apply this same skill to yourself. Once you start deploying, you require an ability to know where you end and where you begin, which nesting doll is at your center. You don't want to lose track of the belief that the last and central nesting doll is you, the real you, your soul. Until you have to.
The Farm is about buying into the idea that not one, but all of those nesting dolls are you. The ability to inhabit all of them without doubt is essential to survival.   p. 95

In order to interrogate someone effectively, you have to have patience. You need the ability to listen for long periods of time when nothing is being said, knowing eventually something will out.  ...  One thing that comes out of the Farm experience is a weird sense of ease with being observed. ... And that ease translates into a certain confidence, which is the inverse of anxiety. ....
There is an inflection point in training after which no one rips out the smoke alarms. The inflection point is when you make the choice: The absence of privacy is a price you're willing to pay to do the work you need to do. ...
What you learn at the Farm is basically how to decouple patience and anxiety, how to listen in complex situations and remain calm. Look at the asset in the eye and deny you're CIA, and feel calm. Listen while a prisoner tells you when a bomb will go off, or where the enriched uranium is, and feel calm. Threaten someone's life, and mean it, and feel calm.  pp. 132-3


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Egalitarianism in Hunter-Gatherers

Interesting paragraphs from `Chapter 8: Capital Punishment'' from the Richard Wrangham's new book, ``The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution.''

The story applies to mobile hunter-gatherers in general. Bands might have a headman, and some men are respected more than others, but the men are all equal in the sense that everyone must work to provide his own food, and no married man has authority over any other. When a group decision is needed, the situation determines who has most influence. ... Everyone has a voice, but they all show considerable reluctance to use it. Men are so averse to grandiosity that self-deprecation is a highly regarded part of public behavior. ... important to show shame and embarrassment ... demonstrate to others that one does not have a conceited view of oneself.   pp. 154-5

... egalitarianism can be less strict with regard to women and children. ... p. 155

The egalitarian mobile hunter-gatherer system stands in contrast to the large, typically hierarchical farming groups, in which individuals such as chiefs, monarchs, dictators, or presidents hold positions that give them authority over others. Of course, even settled societies headed by an individual may incorporate strongly egalitarian components. ...   p. 155

Most group-living primates, by contrast to humans, have a clear dominance hierarchy enforced by brute fighting ability. ... Hunter-gatherer men are entirely different from primates ... because ordinarily men's status does not depend on violence.   p. 155
To the extend that there is leadership in hunter-gatherer bands, such as in taking initiative for group decisions, prestige is the important criterion. People compete for influence mostly by producing good arguments, creating good plans, being the best mediators, telling the best stories, or seeing for future most convincingly.   ... Although leaders can be admired and respected, they cannot enforce their ideas, nor can they use their positions to take anything from other members of the band. ....    pp. 155-6

What explains the absence of alphas among hunter-gatherers? ... They have the same potential for competitive psychology everywhere, and, as we have seen, sometimes hunter-gatherer men do grow up to challenge the social norm by trying to throw their weight around.   p. 156



Sunday, December 16, 2018


A quote in three segments from John Burdett's novel, ``The Bangkok Asset'':
... It's your great distraction. Anytime you're in danger of having to face the real challenge of your life, you deflect. You tell yourself you're looking for your true identity, which can only happen when you've found your daddy, who, incidentally, will be of no use to you at all when you finally meet him. What a psycho scam. I'm almost impressed. ...
... Say it takes a tenth of a second to make one stroke of a pen. Then there's a gap in consciousness too brief to notice, but it's vital to your functioning. During that gap the whole history of humanity intervenes in the form of sparks and flashes, your own personal history, the whole cosmos, actually, which of course doesn't exist in time, but when you make the next stroke of pen you are a different person. After a whole inhalation and exhalation nothing at all remains except the blueprint. No way the next stroke is going to be the identical to the first, there has to be a subtle difference. ....
... when I make to leave he grabs my arm and stares into my eyes. ``You smoke weed, don't you?''
``Ah, a little.''
``No, a lot. But probably not enough. Next time you smoke, get really, really stoned, then meditate on desolation. Concentrate on the most unpleasant death you can think of, then how it will be at the end, when you realize there never was a heaven or a morality and every single little thing you did to make your life and the world better was a total waste of time.''
``Why are you so hung up on desolation?''
``It's where the treasure is hidden.''
So much for my brush with the saint. ... pp. 43--45, The Bangkok Asset, John Burdett

I finished the novel on Friday night and in the last few nights had very strong intuitions that lead to a miniature enlightenment on Friday night. Trying to explain the events seems futile, except for a deeper understanding of the nature of individual endeavor ending in desolation.
Anyway, nothing has changed, and nothing will change in a certain sense.


What is the source of mental energy in daily life? I'm sure there are many answers out there, as well as many who think this is nonsens...