Sunday, October 28, 2007

On The Small Genius Of Everyday Things

When we make our first attempts at a task, our efforts inevitably botch. The new graduate enters the office on the first day, a teenager scribbles her first, shaky lines of poetry, a barista tries to steam milk for the first time: we will fail before we succeed. Yet through practice, hard work, grace, talent and intelligence we can slowly improve ourselves. A child's crayon scrawl will become handwriting - more study renders handwriting calligraphy. Through effort what was messy becomes art.

There is no distinction in kind between the work of art and the work of labor, only a difference in quality. Somehow everyday activities when refined, buffed, and perfected, when their elements are arranged by a careful perception, become more than their merely useful inartistic counterparts. Their meaning spills over from the merely practical, and into the sublime. A man may tell you his opinions about some political problem; but listen to a great orator and that opinion is joined with an aesthetic pleasure that unites a practical goal with an aesthetic joy.

And then, as art is itself a polished version of everyday activity, art itself can be improved upon and become genius. Now, if art provides aesthetic pleasure in addition to a practical goal, genius is a special embodiment in which form and pleasure feed off of each other.

Of course, not everyone can be a genius. Most people who think that they're geniuses - who have the gall and the self-possession to admit out-loud to friends associates and benefactors that their mind and energy are great-souled enough to mark them as one of the blessed - are just assholes. And yet we all and orient our lives by genius' stars, and head off into the deep knowing that we probably will never reach a shore, but that our journey will be useful yet, just for trying.

But I want to tell you that genius is within our reach. The problem is that we fail to recognize the potential for genius in the simpler parts of our life. Can't we be geniuses of friendship? Why don't we recognize the genius in an easy life? There may be a genius in listening, in eating, even in breathing?


John Dewey argues in Art As Experience that there is no real distinction between high and low art and the lived experience of our daily activities. In fact, the aesthetic experience is only beautiful because it follows the form of our lived experience: we arrange our lives' meaning from the scattered material of our daily experiences, and art does the same, but arranges its collage of colors and people in a way that is especially pleasing. Indeed, we can and should turn an artistic eye to our own life, to our own crafting of our days. But art, we think, is something that is impractical, removed from the commerce of life, done for its own sake and hidden away in museum galleries and the avant-garde, abstracted away from real life, hung on rich people's walls, inaccessible to the common mob who lack the developed minds and eyes that can appreciate the rarefied heights of culture. No, Dewey says, art is everywhere. Rather than being separate from everyday experience, art is just a really well done type of everyday experience. And once we realize that we can start to take the lessons that artists and art provide us with and apply them to our own lives: looking at our actions with the same lingering sensitivity we would look at a Picasso or read a Dostoyevsky.


Before the American Revolution, pretty much everybody thought of work as a curse, something that people would only do if they were coerced into doing it. The gentleman who thought of themselves as the representatives of society were lucky to be free of work, in part so their great sensitive minds could better appreciate the real refined beauties of art, politics, sport and science. But after the Revolution, people began to find a joy in work. Gordon Wood, in his The Radicalism of the American Revolution, quotes John Adams as saying:

"We define Genius to be the innate Capacity, and then vouchsafe this flattering Title only to those few, who have been directed, by their birth, education and lucky accidents to distinguish themselves in arts and sciences or in the execution of the what the World calls great Affairs." But if we apply the title of genius to all those above the median, then, said Adams, we will find that "the world swarms with them." "Planting corn, freighting Oysters, and killing Deer" - these were among the "worthy employments in which most great Geniuses are engaged."

As the Founding Fathers looked out into a freer, more egalitarian society, they realized that the Liberty they fought for - of finding a vocation, of crafting a life - need not mean a freedom for work. That work itself, that rude hunting and fishing could be genius.


Look at the cashier scanning your food in the supermarket, the call center staffer working long hours in an Indian business park, a college stoner cutting class to doodle in his art book - we would denigrate these tasks, we would hold them below our aesthetic appreciation, and call them common and flat. They probably are. There is probably little joy to squeeze from those moments. But in doing so, we deny the human potential for infinite improvement. Why can't there be geniuses scanning groceries?

Buddhism points to a more dramatic expression of this point. In paying so attention to the act of breathing, Buddhist meditative practice encourages its adherents to improve upon the most basic and constant act of their lives. If you could develop a genius for the breath - a breath that was enjoyable, loving, aesthetic - then what act of genius could compare? The breath is always with you, it never leaves, if it can be improved upon, then everything else in a life would also be improved upon.

And we can improve upon everything in our lives. I think that with enough effort, we can turn our everyday experience into something finely crafted, something that speaks to us in the same way that great works of art speak to us. If this beauty doesn't seem too convincing, then I think the converse is scary enough to be convincing, too: imagine a life lived blindly, ugly, in which every action was done merely for some end, so that the actual lived moments of each day were as useful and as beautiful as a rusted metal cog in a large continuously profitable machine. Recognizing the potential for genius in our everyday actions, then, can make our lives not something of commerce, but something of art.

Wittgenstein Facts, The Eighth Edition

Once I, Ludwig Wittgenstein, dreamed I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Wittgenstein. Suddenly I awoke, and there was I, visibly Wittgenstein. I do not know whether it was Wittgenstein dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that he was Wittgenstein. Between Wittgenstein and the butterfly there must be some distinction. But one may be the other. This is called the transformation of things.

Friday, October 26, 2007

This Week In Brendan

Here's what's up at this week:

Rudy Giuliani, The Loneliest Candidate
How The Onion Can Save The News
Britain's Climate Change U-Turn

If you like this blog, and like what you read over at Utne, leaving a simple comment on my Utne posts can tell my editors that I'm as fantastic as you think I am.

Squids, and Facts About Them, Part Four

In an old aquarium a couple of miles outside of San Diego lives a group of the most remarkable squid ever. Known by scientists as the Comstock squid, better known as the prognosticator fish, these squid were subject to much attention before retreating from the public eye in 1985.

The prognosticator fish are the only living representatives of their species ever seen. A group of over fifty brightly colored squid, about the size of a wine cork, were bought from a grizzled miner on the Comstock lode in 1863 by a San Francisco investor, Mr. Antonius Shnarch. Shnarch put the squid in a small glass aquarium and included them in his Medicinal Mystery Show, based in San Francisco. People were amused by the strange looking fish, but nobody then could predict how much they would amaze the public for over a century.

A diary recently discovered in an attic in Sugar Bush Knolls, Ohio might shed light on the prognosticator fish's origins. The diary is from a man, Sharky "Pinchum" Jones, who had left his native Ohio in 1860 wanting to strike it rich on the Nevada Gold Rush. He returned in 1864, penniless, and would die of a liver infection April 1st, 1865 in his family home. The diary - in barely legible handwriting - describes a strange meeting Jones had with a Chinese merchant.

Old Smoker mine - played out. The Grande Dame - played out. Damn this luck of myne! To hell, I say! But the Silver Banshee - she has been displaying the sines, yes she has. I may be a rich man yet, therfore, [bought] a hundred feet.

I met yesterday with a consarnned Clestial! Snuck up on me aslepin, he did. Well and he said he knew I'd be in some money soon, saw it in his dirt-worshipin heathan fuckery. I said I don't give a screw and a half go and smoke some opium with the other Celestials, why didn't he, rot in his boots. But that night I done found a nugget a color in the Banshee mine and he was at the entrance, waiting for me like a love-sick mongrel puppy, and he said that I should give him that nugget, or else no other nuggest would come, and should I did what he said, I should be in riches for my natural life. Well I gav him a good thrashing from here to Washoe county, not sparing any blows to his Celestial Ribs and his eyes neither, so that by the time I was finished with him by god he'd never be recognized by his heathan Chinee gods no more, he had to go pray to the Negro gods he was so black and blue. Anyways, next morning I discover outside my tent this here aquarium, with a bunch a funny looking fish. Now ain't that something?

A sudden attack of St. Vittus' dance left Jones unable to work his claim, and his stock in the mine - which later proved a bonanza - was bought by his partners for a mere ten dollars. He had to sell the squid to pay for his passage back home.

Shnarch was surprised as the squid continued to grow, until they were about three feet each in length. The cost to feed them and find a bigger aquarium threatened to bankrupt Shnarch. One night, losing patience, Shnarch resolved to sell the fish to a butcher. But as he plunged a net into the water to fish them, something happened.

The next day, Shnarch opened up a new act. He would lead people up to the squid tank where, he said, the squid could tell their future. Through an elaborate series of gestures, the squid would communicate their divinations. They produced amazing results, and Shnarch's World-Famous Future-Telling Fish were a hit throughout the Western United States until Shnarch's death in 1916, at the age of 103.

After Shnarch died, the squid - whose numbers had dwindled to a mere dozen - were shipped to the University of San Diego's marine biology department. A group of prominent philosophers, theologians and political scientists protested the move. They believed each that study of the squid could unlock the mysteries of the universe, and each wanted a squid for their department. But a cloistered and diligent wing in the marine biology department turned their efforts to conservation, breeding the small stock of squid so that their numbers almost reached 200.

Finally, in 1956, the squid were ready to go to the public. There were rumors that the squid were involved in code-breaking activities for the Allies in the Second World War, but these claims have - as yet - been unsubstantiated.

The squid did little of any note until 1959, when a visiting movie star named Ronald Regan approached their tank. The squid became agitated. One handler, versed in their language, was surprised. "They say you'll be President," he told the bemused star of Bedtime for Bonzo.

From then on the squid would amuse themselves by predicting the winner of each presidential election. They never guessed wrong. The biologists would keep the news secret, out of respect for the democratic process.

In 1983, Walter Mondale, then the Democratic Presidential nominee, made a pilgrimage to the future-telling squid. He spent three hours with them. When he finally emerged, he was in tears. "Will you win? Will you lose?" an aide is reported to have said. Mondale shook his head. "I will lose," he said. "But that’s not why I'm crying. They showed me something… something horrible. Something no man with a soul should have to see."

Mondale refused to share the squids' secret. Some speculate that he has written in his will that his secret should become public after his death. But for that we will have to wait and see.

Since them, the prognosticator fish have been removed from the public eye. They are now housed in a basement laboratory, where they wait for something only they know. Private meetings are available: but few are ever granted.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

They Might Be Giants + Gilgamesh = My Idiosyncratic Tastes, Perfected

Check out this video for TMBG's song The Mesopotamians from their new album, the Else.

They Might Be Giants - The Mesopotamians

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Looks like good old Gilgamesh is finally getting his due.

Found this on Drawn.

Friday, October 19, 2007

A Third Fact About Our Nautical Buddies, The Squid

Squid are the only invertebrates to display a love of coffee.

The first recorded instance of a squid drinking coffee comes to us from Dr. Constance St. Germaine, a naturalist who experimented with cephalopods in the late nineteenth century. In a letter to a friend, St Germaine tells a story of an acquaintance, Mr. S. Mark (complete first name unknown), who had been keeping a pet squid in his London apartments for "quite a while - some say it a year, some say it three, others insist the two have shared over a decade of cohabitation". Originally, St. Germaine reports, Mr. Mark kept the squid as a mere diversion: "he came to admire the undulations of the squid's mantle as it swam back and forth in its tank, positioned, as it was, in the middle of the small apartment's parlor, and he would watch it for hours on end, as if practicing a form of mental constitutional." But after an incident at a New Year's eve party Mr. Mark discovered that the squid displayed remarkable intelligence: the squid expressed what seemed like keen interest at the party-goers' conversation. The squid - who Mr. Mark soon named Clarance, after a beloved uncle - became quite popular around the many scientific salons, making upwards of ten appearances in a week. Often presented as an oddity, Clarance was soon appreciated for his supreme elegance, and what one anonymous newspaper writer described as his "animal wit."He was known to host high teas where he would encourage diners to float small cups of coffee on the surface of the water of his tank. Clarance would position himself over the cup and - to the amusement of all - drink copious amounts of coffee. Clarance was found dead under mysterious circumstances, in a London gutter: St. Germaine suggests that his death might have been caused by "Mr. Mark's jealous hand."

These days, many squid at popular aquariums are given their coffee in special floating bags. They're named Clarance-Cups, in honor of their ostensible cephalopd inventor.

Friday, October 12, 2007

New Friday Feature!

Starting today every Friday - or some Fridays, all those Fridays that matter - I will put up links to all my week's writing that somehow shows up on different sites. I will also include a fact of some sort.

This will also be available in some sort of e-mail list soon. Next week-type soon.

Can The MRI See God?
- Utne Reader

Utne's Rough Guide To International Opinion - Utne Reader

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Doris Lessing: Official Badass

Doris Lessing, who wrote one of my all-time favorite books, the Golden Notebook, just won the Nobel Prize for literature. Lessing manages to let her keen moral sense and deep understanding of the uncomfortable wrinkles of human nature shine through in her writing, while still spinning wonderful stories. Like Bergman, she writes about philosophically without letting it sound philosophical. Which is hard to do -- and great!

Here's Lessing on the award:

To celebrate I'd have to go and buy champagne. I'm going to bed.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Happy International Cephalopod Awareness Day!

Readers of this blog will know the superlatively interesting squid is one of our favorite subjects. So it's great that today is Monday October 8th, because while you might be in your office battling your malaise with cups of coffee and day-dreams about leaving work and getting a big muffin, you should be aware that over in the world's oceans there are a bunch of squid and octopus plashing around, having fun, like they do every day, Monday to Sunday. Which is why it's apt that Monday October 8th is International Cephalopod Awareness Day. Check it out. And remember those majestic monsters of the sea, the squid today however you can.

Maybe you can go out for calamari?

Or watch squid videos on YouTube?

Or tell a friend a squid fact?

Or buy me a cute squid plush?

Who knows?

So in honor of this day, I'll put up a new squid fact this evening, work permitted.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

In Praise of Funny Voices

Breugel's Peasant Wedding Dance via.

"People in New York aren't that mean," my friend Chris told my friend Serge. "If you fell down on the street they wouldn't stomp on your balls or anything."

When Serge told me this I laughed so hard I couldn't think of anything else for four, maybe five minutes. If I would've been drinking milk, milk would've shot out my nose. My chest hurt. When the laughter would start to die down, I would remember that line again they wouldn't stomp on your balls or anything and the laughter would spark again, my chest heaving, leaving me gulping for air. But I can't expect you to understand why this was little story was, to me, the height of Western Humor - it was funny because Serge told it in a funny voice.

The voice was this sort of clipped, muffled version of a Hollywood imitation of a mid-century New York tough, if you can imagine that. As an accent, it was weak. As an impression, it was horrible. But as a funny voice - well, it was perfect. You just had to be there, I guess.

A lot of people say that friendship is about trust and intimacy, about confiding secret-most heartfelt feelings, about sharing passionate mutual interests, about companionship and company. For me, friendship is all about the funny voices.


Me and my friends have the New York Voice, the Robot Voice, the Seagull Voice, the Pretentious Artist Voice, the Pirate Rapper Voice (M.C. Pegleghook), the Werner Herzog Voice, the Australian Voice and a voice that’s just called the Voice. The Voice is deadly. A sort of mangled imitation of a British accent that, like an over-Xeroxed piece of paper, lost all of its form and definition from over-repetition until it didn't sound British at all - it just became the Voice. Two of my friends talked in the Voice for almost three weeks straight. It got so bad that they had trouble speaking normally. They didn't want to speak normally, they were content to just banter in the Voice.


The voices are more like games than like impressions.

Let me explain with an example: The Pretentious Artist voice goes like this. You speak in a fake German accent, elongating your vowels, accenting odd syllables your voice over-confident verbal strut. But the voice itself is only one half of the fun, it's what you say that really matters. The pretentious artist will describe a pretentious art work and then attach some hideous price-tag to it: "My new art installation, you must see it! First, I shave off all my body hair. Then I mold the hair into a giant mustache! Then - I set it on fire! It's genius! A representation of the modern soul in plaster and hair." Then, you wait a beat. "The price? ONE MILLION DOLLARS!"

It's hilarious. Believe me.


Because when you speak to someone in a silly voice - especially if it's a really stupid silly voice, you're trusting that they'll get it, that they're in on the joke, that they won't look at you with one cocked eyebrow and say, in an everyday voice free of willful mispronunciation or silly sentence constructions "What the hell are you talking about?" You're certain, when you're talking in a silly voice, that you are going to be allowed to goof off, to put on hold some of your seriousness. And it's damned funny. But the problem is that you have to be pretty good friends with someone to break out your Pirate Rapper Voice. You can't do it with just anyone. Because for the people who aren't in on the joke, who haven't been explained the rules of these games, some essential part of the joke is missing. All of my friends might be doubled over themselves in giggles, while people listening in - well, you just have to be there.

And because of that, there's a wonderful intimacy that comes with speaking in a silly voice. I was hanging out with a bunch of people a couple days ago, and we started speaking in funny voices. It was like a floodgate broke and I felt suddenly closer to these people, more accepted - because when you're with someone and you pinch up your vocal chords and pretend to sound like a chipmunk or something and your friend starts to laugh and then starts speaking like a chipmunk too, then you know that you are actually friends; a certain sort of friends, good enough friends to speak in a funny voice to.


Why don't you tell me about your silly voices?