Monday, May 23, 2011

Confidence and Creativity

Orwell didn't conceive Big Brother as Islamic. And Winston Smith, hero though he may have been, was terribly frightened. But I thought of Nineteen Eighty-Four reading Tom Friedman's column yesterday, where he writes about Syria, a country ruled with an iron fist yet in the midst of the Arab Spring. Friedman makes what would seem to be an audacious claim, though events appear to back him up.
I don’t see how Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, can last — not because of Facebook, which his regime would love to confiscate, if it could only find the darn thing — but because of something hiding in plain sight: Many, many Syrian people have lost their fear. On Friday alone, the regime killed at least 26 more of its people in protests across the country.
Of course, an outsider can never tell whether fear really has been abandoned or if instead people remain fearful yet no longer choose to cower, instead making a willful decision to act boldly in the face of danger. There is strength in numbers. One can be bold if one knows others will also be forthright.

America exports the tools that let the ordinary people in Syria communicate, with each other and with the outside world - Facebook, Twitter, YouTube. We don't find these exports significantly reducing the trade deficit - that's part of the business logic which is behind how these services are supported. But their value in helping to shape the future in the Middle East is inestimable. If democracy finds its way to Syria, that truly would be amazing. There's a lot of extrapolation left to reach that conclusion. But the opening is now there to where it no longer seems impossible. Even if the present regime is disposed of, however, there is no guarantee that democracy rather than factionalism will take its place. Steven Coll has a comment in the New Yorker today arguing that the middle class and the Christian minority have so far been sitting it out in Syria. Perhaps they are still afraid because they stand something to lose. Democracy only of the young and underemployed isn't democracy at all. Let's hope that the confidence bred in the Arab Spring persists so that it attracts those on the sidelines to join the game.

* * * * *

I have been thinking quite a bit about confidence recently, but of the individual sort, where one goes it alone. I have been reading Richard Ellmann's James Joyce. Yesterday afternoon I finished Part One - Dublin, which covers Joyce's childhood and young adulthood. The concluding milestones in that part are the death of Joyce's mother from cancer at age 44, and Joyce falling in love with Nora Barnacle, who was to be his wife soon thereafter. He was 22 at the time, still immature and adolescent in some of his behavior, yet remarkably far along in his intellectual development.

I am enjoying this reading quite a bit, but that would not have been the case had I not read some of Joyce's early work beforehand. Last year I was involved in an online group that read Dubliners, where our various postings and comments about the individual various chapters gave some speculation and occasional insight for us to reflect upon about what was going on in Joyce's writing and his mind while producing that. A few years earlier I had read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And many years before that I made a halfhearted attempt to read Ulysses. I may try that once again in the near future. (And if successful, might even give Gravity's Rainbow one more go, but now I'm getting way ahead of myself.)

One fascination with Ellmann's biography is what we learn about the writing. All of Joyce's fiction is a combination of autobiography, commentary on that, and narrative that in form stems from Joyce's early writings, much of which were not preserved. The characters in his stories, often with their names changed in the fiction version but sometimes not, have real life counterparts. Often, so do the various incidents around which Joyce builds his narrative. Ellmann helps the reader connect the dots. Doing so offers a great deal of insight toward understanding Joyce's young mind at work.

Joyce was the oldest child in a large Catholic family. His father, John Joyce, was a creative guy but couldn't or wouldn't support his family adequately. He had a minor inheritance and used that to purchase property, which he continued to mortgage as a way to generate income. He had been involved in politics for a time and that did generate a pension eventually, but it was inadequate for the family to live on. They moved quite a pit, to steer clear of their creditors. Ultimately he became a drunk and abusive to his family. Indirectly, this seems to be the cause of James' mother's death. She lived a hard life.

Joyce was a precocious youth and was sent to boarding school run by Jesuits (Clongowes) when he was only six. Even with Ellmann's gentle guidance I couldn't understand whether the primary motivation of doing this at such an early age was to get young Jim the appropriate schooling or if instead to sever him from the family situation. (He did return home on holidays and in the summer.) By late adolescence Joyce had become quite taken with himself. Whether this was the taking on of a hard shell to protect himself from life's cruelties or was something quite different, as a result of extensive comparisons with his schoolmates (who were intellectually inferior) or his teachers (where perhaps the same can be said as well) and the winning of a variety of prizes at an early age, I am not sure. Perhaps some of both were at play.

Joyce had a need for intellectual heroes. As Ellmann explains, this was neither to become them or them to become him, but to achieve some fusion of a sort between the personalities. One of those heroes was Ibsen. Joyce had written a review of an Ibsen play when Joyce was only 18, his first formal publication. A correspondence between the two ensued thereafter. It's very cool for a teenager to be able directly exchange with his intellectual hero, especially when that doesn't happen at a university by taking a class from the great man.

I don't know if it was this discussion about intellectual heroes that triggered the following thoughts or if it was something else, but I started to see more than a passing resemblance between the young Jim and the young Lanny. Here are a variety of perhaps superficial connections. Both of us grew up in a family that had its playful side with activities like "charades" and singing around the piano. Both developed an irrational fear of dogs. Both were myopic and wore glasses at a young age. Both though gregarious with our mates were awkward and shy around girls. Both were notably good in school. Both had talents that were evident in more than one dimension.

But there the similarity ends, at least if you hold age constant. For some of the things that Joyce did as an adolescent I've done similar things over the past five to ten years. I'll get to that in a bit. Joyce had extreme confidence in his abilities even at that age. Some of this, of course, is because he was extraordinarily talented. I don't want to compare my talent to his. It would be pretentious of me to do that. But I do want to note that at his young age while my talent was evident I lacked confidence in it. So it is not obvious to me that Joyce should have been so confident in himself. I have an explanation for this difference, but I'll hold it till near the end of the piece, where I can make the argument better.

Joyce was full of the the meaning of life questions. Whom should we value and whom should we despair? What principles should guide these decisions? What is so interesting to me is that apart from his rejection of the Catholic Church, which pertained to issues that lie outside my universe, most of Joyce's conclusions are mine as well. He puts an enormous stock in friendship and good conversation. He values the ordinary and humdrum, it provides the necessary fodder for the extraordinary acts of creativity. And our purpose is always about becoming, never about being. Ellmann puts it this way:
The tone of this first draft (A Portrait of the Artist) is belligerent. Joyce begins by insisting on the psychological theory that 'the features of infancy' belong to a portrait as much as the features of adolescence. The past has no 'iron memorial aspect,' but implies 'a fluid succession of presents.' What we are to look for is not a fixed character but an 'individuating rhythm,' not 'an identificative paper but rather the curve of an emotion.' This conception of personality as river rather than as statue is premonitory of Joyce's later view of consciousness.
(page 144, paperback edition)
Joyce, when he is at play and not producing serious verse or prose wrote limericks. (I've been known to do something similar though my inspiration recently has been Ogden Nash rather than Edward Lear.) So there was an impish aspect to him. But he did have a remarkable discipline to his work as well. Early on he came to a notion he called epiphany, by which he does not mean a god-like vision, but rather a moment when an important idea crystallizes. He felt it the job of the artist to magnify and reflect on the epiphany, draw it out and thereby make it a permanent realization rather than a fleeting moment of brilliance. He was to write many of these, 71 I believe. It's funny, in my blogging, at least the blogging that is not about the technology per se, that is just what I'm trying to do. I don't have Joyce's mastery of the language so my method is different, to connect seemingly unrelated ideas and not worry too much about the prose constructed in so doing, but my purpose is almost identical to Joyce's. And I've been doing it for some time now, so in seeing my behavior as an adult blogger I'm now ready to comment about the confidence (or lack) of the talented adolescent.

One of the big decisions that young adults must make as a matter of practice is whether, first and foremost, to trust the judgment of elders who are more experienced or instead trust one's own judgment. This must be done with an empirical eye, examining the consequence of the judgment and whether those consequences were good or bad, or if that becomes too hard a determination then judging simply whether the outcome is tolerable or not. Children are told to respect their elders. But a precocious intellectual won't simply accept that pronouncement. The evidence will be examined to verify its validity. At a certain point we stop relying on the judgment of our parents. At a different time we we similarly stop depending on the judgments of our teachers, at still another time we choose to lean less heavy on our senior colleagues. This doesn't mean we don't consult nor value the opinions of these people. It only means that eventually after the discussions are over, we make the decisions. This, I take it, is the real meaning of becoming an adult.

Adults are confident, in the sense that they are willing to make decisions and they understand the preparations which are necessary for doing that well. Intellectually, I was not an adult at 22, talented as I might have been. I also knew I was massively ignorant on a wide variety of topics and I couldn't reconcile the ignorance with the talent. So I would have relied on a teacher or an experienced elder at that juncture in my life, had one of them made an appearance. I wouldn't become an adult in this manner until my early 40s, after my second child had been born and I made the career switch to learning technology. Joyce was an adult intellectually when he was 18.

Precocious talent either creates such a burden that the person bursts under it or, if not, lets the person reach higher plateaus than the rest of us have visited.

An epiphany.

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