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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Literary Detours: The Diaries of Christopher Isherwood, Volume 001

I have no idea what prompted me to pick up this massive volume. Perhaps I was just due for a literary detour. "The Diaries of Christopher Isherwood, Volume One, 1939-1960" is full of literary gossip, but it is also an insightful look at the seminal moment of Hindu belief in America and its development from the ground up. Isherwood was among the many writers and actors in Hollywood to embrace Hinduism (Vedanta) back in the late 1930s and 1940s. It's amazing to see the quantity (and quality) of Isherwood's writing. This man wrote like every day was his last day on earth. If you are asking yourself, "where have I heard that name before?" you are not alone. Isherwood is the author of many novels and essays. His most memorable is "Berlin Stories" which was essentially turned into the musical "Cabaret." These diary entries are edited by Katherine Bucknell; she does an excellent job of keeping private those entries that might have revealed a bit too much of Isherwood's personal and intimate moments without losing the central idea of the man's genius. Sure, he was already in his mid forties and dating 19 year old young men, but who wasn't back in the Hollywood of those days. Isherwood was intensely frightful of war in general, so it came as no surprise that he took a conscientious objector status even before Pearl Harbor. Being a British subject at the time, he could have been called back home to fight. Luckily, that was not the case, and Isherwood spent the war years writing for MGM on a part-time basis, volunteering in a Quaker camp, and meditating the years away under the guidance of his guru, Swami Prabhavananda. Much is said regarding Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, Thomas Mann, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, W.H. Auden, among many, many others. I don't think Isherwood is just merely dropping names here; he's really got a handle on these people and depicts them clearly and with insight.

If you checked out the link you'll know that this is a 1,047 page chunkler. Somehow, I just found myself past page 300 within the first few days, and even though it is not part of my designated reading list books for 2009, I am going to press on and eventually finish it. The glossary, notes and other index goodies can't be past over without missing much. More on this later.

Finish the second of my "Writing" books. I read Ann Hood's "Creating Character Emotions." It was a very good and instructive book, but I think I often take advice on writing too literally, and eventually work myself into a corner with little options, so I have to learn how to moderate this.

I have a rant coming on "the American Short Story" and the genius that is Kevin Canty. Believe me, you will not want to miss that one.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Truth and Mirrors: Umberto Eco's Last Stand on Cognition

I took some time off from the Internet, and during that time I was able to (finally) finish Umberto Eco's "Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition." The second part of the book dealt with more than just Cognitive Types, as Eco embarked on a semiotic examination of abstractions that could perhaps only be defined by way of pragmatism. Eco details "The True Story of the Sarkiapone" which becomes more convoluted, funny and entertaining with every turn. The Sarkiapone does not exist; it's an imaginary animal that a passenger in a train pretends to have in his luggage. Another person in the same compartment of the train expresses the idea that he knows everything there is to know about the Sarkiapone (one of those know-it-all people we hate so much). At any rate, as the first passenger continues to change the story of the Sarkiapone and its characteristics (physical and behavioral), the second passenger continues to adjust his "expertise" to match the conversation. In the end, the first passenger reveals that the Sarkiapone does not exist. The second passenger quickly states that he knew it all along, and that he was playing along with the "creation" of the strange animal. Umberto Eco uses this story to illustrate how people construct meaning from definition; that is to say, the Sarkiapone did not exist, but as the first passenger "mutates" the characteristics of the animal, and the second passenger adapts to those mutations, meaning is created out of nothing. It's an interesting trick of cognition and reference of "contract."

Visual cognition as reference of contract is a bit more complicated. What do we see in a mirror? How does the reversal of the image signifies a different type? Eco explains everything from the reversal of the image and the fact that what is returned from standing in front of the mirror is not fully a representation of what stands in front. Why? A reflection is composed of light/color spectrum and the eye perception of the same. Other perception examples include the classic "Mexican riding a bike" image. Why, I wonder, after 500 pages of some of the most insightful meanderings on epistemology, semiotics, etc. did Eco finish this tour de force with this funny trick of perception? Who knows, really. I did enjoy the reading tremendously. I realize now how much I marked this book. Normally, I do a lot of underlining (no highlighters allowed), marginalia, etc., but I think I over did it with this one. I still have two more Umberto Eco volumes to go this year, but before I get to them, I have to play catch up with some others and with my writing. And summer is almost over!

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