“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My own favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and Muddling through Life after Life.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Putting Down the Pen: How School Teaches Us the Worst Possible Way to Read Literature

(4,036 words. Link to printable version.)   
Storytelling comes naturally to humans. But there is a special category of narratives that we’re taught from an early age to approach in the most strained and unnatural of ways. The label we apply to this category is literature. While we demand of movies and television shows that they envelop us in the seamlessly imagined worlds of their creators’ visions, not only whisking us away from our own concerns, but rendering us oblivious as well, however fleetingly, to the artificiality of the dramas playing out before us, we split the spines of literary works expecting some real effort at heightened awareness to be demanded of us—which is why many of us seldom read this type of fiction at all.

Some of the difficulty is intrinsic to the literary endeavor, reflecting the authors’ intention to engage our intellect as well as our emotions. But many academics seem to believe that literature exists for the sole purpose of supporting a superstructure of scholarly discourse. Rather than treating it as an art form occupying a region where intuitive aesthetic experience overlaps with cerebral philosophical musing, these scholars take it as their duty to impress upon us the importance of approaching literature as a purely intellectual exercise. In other words, if you allow yourself to become absorbed in the story, especially to the point where you forget, however briefly, that it is just a story, then you’re breaking faith with the very institutions that support literary scholarship—and that to some degree support literature as an art form.    

The unremarked scandal of modern literary scholarship is that the tension between reading as an aesthetic experience and reading as a purely intellectual pursuit is never even acknowledged. Many students seeking a deeper and more indelible involvement with great works come away instead with instructions on how to take on a mindset and apply a set of methods designed specifically to preclude just the type of experience they’re hoping to achieve. For instance, when novelist and translator Tim Parks wrote an essay called “A Weapon for Readers” for The New York Review of Books, in which he opined on the critical importance of having a pen in hand while reading, he received several emails from disappointed readers who “even thus armed felt the text was passing them by.” In a response titled “How I Read,” Parks begins with an assurance that he will resist being “prescriptive” as he shares his own reading methods, and yet he goes on to profess, “I do believe reading is an active skill, an art even, certainly not a question of passive absorption.” But, we might ask, could there also be such a state as active absorption? And isn’t that what most of us are hoping for when we read a story?
Tim Parks and Pen
Tim Parks

For Parks, and nearly every academic literary scholar writing or teaching today, stories are vehicles for the transmission of culture and hence reducible to the propositional information contained within them. The task of the scholar and the responsible reader alike therefore is to penetrate the surface effects of the story—the characters, the drama, the music of the prose—so we can scrutinize the underlying assumptions that hold them all together and make them come to life. As author David Shields explains in his widely celebrated manifesto Reality Hunger, “I always read the book as an allegory, as a disguised philosophical argument.” Parks demonstrates more precisely what this style of reading entails, writing, “As I dive into the opening pages, the first question I’m asking is, what are the qualities or values that matter most to this author, or at least in this novel?” Instead of pausing to focus on character descriptions or to take any special note of the setting, he aims his pen at clues to the author’s unspoken preoccupations:

I start a novel by Hemingway and at once I find people taking risks, forcing themselves toward acts of courage, acts of independence, in a world described as dangerous and indifferent to human destiny. I wonder if being courageous is considered more important than being just or good, more important than coming out a winner, more important than comradeship. Is it the dominant value? I’m on the lookout for how each character positions himself in relation to courage.

We can forget for a moment that Parks’ claim is impossible—how could he start a novel with so much foreknowledge of what it contains? The important point revealed in this description is that from the opening pages Parks is searching for ways to leap from the particular to the abstract, from specific incidents of the plot to general propositions about the world and the people in it. He goes on,

After that the next step is to wonder what is the connection between these force fields—fear/courage, belonging/exclusion, domination/submission—and the style of the book, the way the plot unfolds. How is the writer trying to draw me into the mental world of his characters through his writing, through his conversation with me?
While this process of putting the characters in some relation to each other and the author in relation to the reader is going on, another crucial question is hammering away in my head. Is this a convincing vision of the world?

Like Shields, Parks is reducing stories to philosophical arguments. And he proceeds to weigh them according to how well they mesh with his own beliefs.

Parks addresses the objection that his brand of critical reading, which he refers to as “alert resistance,” will make us much less likely to experience “those wonderful moments when we might fall under a writer’s spell” by insisting that there will be time enough for that after we’ve thoroughly examined the text for dangerous hidden assumptions, and by further suggesting that many writers will have worked hard enough on their texts to survive our scrutiny. For Parks and other postmodern scholars, there’s simply too much at stake for us to allow ourselves to be taken in by a good story until it’s been properly scanned for contraband ideas. “Sometimes it seems the whole of society languishes in the stupor of the fictions it has swallowed,” he writes. Because it’s a central tenet of postmodernism, the ascendant philosophy in English departments across the country, Parks fails to appreciate just how extraordinary a claim he’s making when he suggests that writers of literary texts are responsible, at least to some degree, for all the worst ills of society.

read stories as allegories
David Shields
The sickening irony is that postmodern scholars are guilty of the very crime they accuse literary authors of committing. Critics like Parks and Shields charge that writers dazzle us with stories so they can secretly inculcate us with their ideologies. Parks feels he needs to teach readers “to protect themselves from all those underlying messages that can shift one’s attitude without one’s being aware of it.” And yet when his own readers come to him looking for advice on how to experience literature more deeply he offers them his own ideology disguised as the only proper way to approach a text (politely, of course, since he wouldn’t want to be prescriptive). Consider the young booklover attending her first college lit courses and being taught the importance of putting literary works and their authors on trial for their complicity in societal evils: she comes believing she’s going to read more broadly and learn to experience more fully what she reads, only to be tricked into thinking what she loves most about books are the very things that must be resisted.

Parks is probably right in his belief that reading with a pen and looking for hidden messages makes us more attentive to the texts and increases our engagement with them. But at what cost? The majority of people in our society avoid literary fiction altogether once they’re out of school precisely because it’s too difficult to get caught up in the stories the way we all do when we’re reading commercial fiction or watching movies. Instead of seeing their role as helping students experience this absorption with more complex works, scholars like Parks instruct us on ways to avoid becoming absorbed at all. While at first the suspicion of hidden messages that underpins this oddly counterproductive approach to stories may seem like paranoia, the alleged crimes of authors often serve to justify an attitude toward texts that’s aggressively narcissistic—even sadistic. Here’s how Parks describes the outcome of his instructions to his students:

There is something predatory, cruel even, about a pen suspended over a text. Like a hawk over a field, it is on the lookout for something vulnerable. Then it is a pleasure to swoop and skewer the victim with the nib’s sharp point. The mere fact of holding the hand poised for action changes our attitude to the text. We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue. Students would report that their reading slowed down when they had a pen in their hand, but at the same time the text became more dense, more interesting, if only because a certain pleasure could now be taken in their own response to the writing when they didn’t feel it was up to scratch, or worthy only of being scratched.

It’s as if the author’s first crime, the original sin, as it were, was to attempt to communicate in a medium that doesn’t allow anyone to interject or participate. By essentially shouting writers down by marking up their works, Parks would have us believe we’re not simply being like the pompous idiot who annoys everyone by trying to point out all the holes in movie plots so he can appear smarter than the screenwriters—no, we’re actually making the world a better place. He even begins his essay on reading with a pen with this invitation: “Imagine you are asked what single alteration in people’s behavior might best improve the lot of mankind.”
storytelling weapon and literature
Jonathan Gottschall

            The question postmodern literary scholars never get around to answering is, given that they believe books and stories are so far-reaching in their insidious effects, and given that they believe the main task in reading is to resist the author’s secret agenda, why should we bother reading in the first place? Of course, we should probably first ask if it’s even true that stories have such profound powers of persuasion. Jonathan Gottschall, a scholar who seeks to understand storytelling in the context of human evolution, may seem like one of the last people you’d expect to endorse the notion that every cultural artifact emerging out of so-called Western civilization must be contaminated with hidden reinforcements of oppressive ideas. But in an essay that seemingly echoes Parks’ most paranoid pronouncements about literature, one that even relies on similarly martial metaphors, Gottschall reports,

Results repeatedly show that our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by story. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence.
What is going on here? Why are we putty in a storyteller’s hands? The psychologists Melanie Green and Tim Brock argue that entering fictional worlds “radically alters the way information is processed.” Green and Brock’s studies show that the more absorbed readers are in a story, the more the story changes them. Highly absorbed readers also detected significantly fewer “false notes” in stories—inaccuracies, missteps—than less transported readers. Importantly, it is not just that highly absorbed readers detected the false notes and didn’t care about them (as when we watch a pleasurably idiotic action film). They were unable to detect the false notes in the first place.

Gottschall’s essay is titled “Why Storytelling Is the Ultimate Weapon,” and one of his main conclusions seems to corroborate postmodern claims about the dangers lurking in literature. “Master storytellers,” he writes, “want us drunk on emotion so we will lose track of rational considerations, relax our skepticism, and yield to their agenda.”
Melanie Green
Melanie Green 

            Should we just accept Shields’ point then that stories are no more than disguised attempts at persuasion? Should we take Parks’ advice and start scouring our books for potentially nefarious messages? It’s important to note that Gottschall isn’t writing about literature in his essay; rather, he’s discussing storytelling in the context of business and marketing. And this brings up another important point: as Gottschall writes, “story is a tool that can be used for good or ill.” Just because there’s a hidden message doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad one. Indeed, if literature really were some kind of engine driving the perpetuation of all the most oppressive aspects of our culture, then we would expect the most literate societies, and the most literate sectors within each society, to be the most oppressive. Instead, some scholars, from Lynn Hunt to Steven Pinker, have traced liberal ideas like universal human rights to the late eighteenth century, when novels were first being widely read. The nature of the relationship is nearly impossible to pin down with any precision, but it’s clear that our civilization’s thinking about human rights evolved right alongside its growing appreciation for literature.

            A growing body of research demonstrates that people who read literary fiction tend to be more empathetic—and less racist even. If literature has hidden messages, they seem to be nudging us in a direction not many would consider cause for alarm. It is empathy after all that allows us to enter into narratives in the first place, so it’s hardly a surprise that one of the effects of reading is a strengthening of this virtue. And that gets at the fundamental misconception at the heart of postmodern theories of narrative. For Shields and Parks, stories are just clever ways to package an argument, but their theories leave unanswered why we enjoy all those elements of narratives that so distract us from the author’s supposed agenda. What this means is that postmodern scholars are confused about what a story even is. They don’t understand that the whole reason narratives have such persuasive clout is that reading them brings us close to actual experiences, simulating what it would be like to go through the incidents of the plots alongside the characters. And, naturally, experiences tend to be more persuasive than arguments. When we’re absorbed in a story, we fail to notice incongruities or false notes because in a very real sense we see them work just fine right before our mind’s eye. Parks worries that readers will passively absorb arguments, so he fails to realize that the whole point of narratives is to help us become actively absorbed in their simulated experiences.

            So what is literature? Is it pure rhetoric, pure art, or something in between? Do novelists begin conceiving of their works when they have some philosophical point to make and realize they need a story to cloak it in? Or are any aspects of their stories that influence readers toward one position or another merely incidental to the true purpose of writing fiction? Consider these questions in the light of your own story consuming habits. Do you go to a movie to have your favorite beliefs reinforced? Or do you go to have a moving experience? Or we can think of it in relation to other art forms. Does the painter arrange colors on a canvas to convince us of some point? Are we likely to vote differently after attending a symphony? The best art really does impact the way we think and feel, but that’s because it creates a moving experience, and—perhaps the most important point here—that experience can seldom be reduced to a single articulable proposition. Think about your favorite novel and try to pare it down to a single philosophical statement, or even ten statements. Now compare that list of statements to the actual work.

            Another fatal irony for postmodernism is that literary fiction, precisely because it requires special effort to appreciate, is a terribly ineffective medium for propaganda. And exploring why this is the case will start getting us into the types of lessons professors might be offering their students if they were less committed to their bizarre ideology than they were to celebrating literature as an art form. If we compare literary fiction to commercial fiction, we see that the prior has at least two disadvantages when it comes to absorbing our attention. First, literary writers are usually committed to realism, so the events of the plot have to seem like they may possibly occur in the real world, and the characters have to seem like people you could actually meet. Second, literary prose often relies on a technique known as estrangement, whereby writers describe scenes and experiences in a way that makes readers think about them differently than they ever have before, usually in the same way the character guiding the narration thinks of them. The effect of these two distinguishing qualities of literature is that you have less remarkable plots recounted in remarkably unfamiliar language, whereas with commercial fiction you have outrageous plots rendered in the plainest of terms.

            Since it’s already a challenge to get into literary stories, the notion that readers need to be taught how to resist their lures is simply perverse. And the notion that an art form that demands so much thought and empathy to be appreciated should be treated as some kind of delivery package for oppressive ideas is just plain silly—or rather it would be if nearly the entirety of American academia weren’t sold on it. I wonder if Parks sits in movie theaters violently scribbling in notebooks lest he succumb to the dangerous messages hidden in Pixar movies (like that friends are really great!). Our lives are pervaded by stories—why focus our paranoia on the least likely source of unacceptable opinions? Why assume our minds are pristinely in the right before being influenced? Of course, one of the biggest influences on our attitudes and beliefs, surely far bigger than any single reading of a book, is our choice of friends. Does Parks vet candidates for entrance into his social circle according to some standard of political correctness? For that matter, does he resist savoring his meals by jotting down notes about suspect ingredients, all the while remaining vigilant lest one of his dining partners slip in some indefensible opinion while he’s distracted with chewing?

            Probably the worst part of Parks’ advice to readers on how to get more out of literature is that he could hardly find a better way to ensure that their experiences will be blunted than by encouraging them to move as quickly as possible from the particular to the abstract and from the emotional to the intellectual. Emotionally charged experiences are the easiest to remember, dry abstractions the most difficult. If you want to get more out of literature, if you want to become actively absorbed in it, then you’ll need to forget about looking past the words on the page in search of confirmation for some pet theory. There’s enough ambiguity in good fiction to support just about any theory you’re determined to apply. But do you really want to go to literature intent on finding what you already think you know? Or would you rather go in search of undiscovered perspectives and new experiences?
Moonwalking with Einstein and Literature

            I personally stopped reading fiction with a pen in my hand—and even stopped using bookmarks—after reading Moonwalking with Einstein, a book on memory and competitive mnemonics by science writer Joshua Foer. A classic of participatory journalism, the book recounts Foer's preparation for the U.S. Memory Championships, and along the way it explores the implications of our culture’s continued shift toward more external forms of memory, from notes and books, to recorders and smartphones. Since one of the major findings in the field of memory research is that you can increase your capacity with the right kind of training, Foer began looking for opportunities to memorize things. He writes,

I started trying to use my memory in everyday life, even when I wasn’t practicing for the handful of arcane events that would be featured in the championship. Strolls around the neighborhood became an excuse to memorize license plates. I began to pay a creepy amount of attention to name tags. I memorized my shopping lists. I kept a calendar on paper, and also in my mind. Whenever someone gave me a phone number, I installed it in a special memory palace. (163-4)

Foer even got rid of all the sticky notes around his computer monitor, except for one which read, “Don’t forget to remember.”

            The most basic technique in mnemonics is what cognitive scientists call “elaborative encoding,” which means you tag otherwise insignificant items like numbers or common names with more salient associations, usually some kind of emotionally provocative imagery. After reading Foer’s book, it occurred to me that while the mnemonics masters went about turning abstractions into solid objects and people, literary scholars are busy insisting that we treat fictional characters as abstractions. Authors, in applying the principle of estrangement to their descriptions, are already doing most of the work of elaborately encoding pertinent information for us. We just to have to accept their invitations to us and put the effort into imagining what they describe.
memories and pictures
Linda Henkel

             A study I came across sometime after reading Foer’s book illustrates the tradeoff between external and internal memories. Psychologist Linda Henkel compared the memories of museum visitors who were instructed to take pictures to those of people who simply viewed the various displays, and she found that taking pictures had a deleterious effect on recall. What seems to be occurring here is that museum visitors who don’t take pictures are either more motivated to get the full experience by mentally taking in all the details or simply less distracted by the mechanics of picture-taking. People with photos know they can rely on them as external memories, so they’re quicker to shift their attention to other things. In other words, because they’re storing parts of the present moment for the future, they have less incentive to occupy the present moment—to fully experience it—with the result that they don’t remember it as well.

            If I’m reading nonfiction, or if I’m reading a work of fiction I’ve already read before in preparation for an essay or book discussion, I’ll still pull out a pen once in a while. But the first time I read a work of literature I opt to follow Foer’s dictum, “Don’t forget to remember,” instead of relying on external markers. I make an effort to cast myself into the story, doing my best to think of the events as though they were actually happening before my eyes and think of the characters as though they were real people—if an author is skilled enough and generous enough to give a character a heartbeat, who are we to drain them of blood? Another important principle of cognitive psychology is that “Memory is the residue of thought.” So when I’m reading I take time—usually at section breaks—to think over what’s already happened and wonder at what may happen next.

I do eventually get around to thinking about abstractions like the author’s treatment of various themes and what the broader societal implications might be of the particular worldview represented in the story, insofar as there is a discernable one. But I usually save those topics for the times when I don’t actually have the book in my hands. It’s much more important to focus on the particulars, on the individual words and lines, so you can make the most of the writer’s magic and transform the marks on the page into images in your mind. I personally think it’s difficult to do that when you’re busy making your own marks on the pages. And I also believe we ought to have the courage and openheartedness to give ourselves over to great authors—at least for a while—confident in our ability to return from where they take us if we deem it necessary. Once in a while, the best thing to do is just shut up and listen.

Also read: How Violent Fiction Works: Rohan Wilson’s “The Roving Party” and James Wood’s Sanguinary Sublime from Conrad to McCarthy

And: Rebecca Mead’s Middlemarch Pilgrimage and the 3 Wrong Ways to Read a Novel

And: Sabbath Says: Philip Roth and the Dilemmas of Ideological Castration

Friday, December 19, 2014

An Analysis of Junk: Guest Post by Meghann Bassett

           In a recent entry on the well-known blog, Reading Subtly, author Dennis J. Junk laments the seemingly inevitable comparison between him and the protagonists of his short stories. He describes an unfortunate incident in which a former classmate read one of his early stories and mistook Junk for a character in the plot. Junk writes, “The next day I opened my inbox to find a two-page response to the story which treated everything described in it as purely factual and attempted to account for the emotional emptiness I’d demonstrated …” Though Junk does concede that “the events in the story … were almost all true,” he rails against the injustice of readers who have “drawn conclusions about me based on it.”

Critic Jane Doe contends that Junk needs “to get over it” (3) She points to the numerous places in his stories in which Junk ostensibly leads the reader to confuse the author with one of his characters. “The similarities are more than evident; they are obvious to even the most obtuse reader” she writes in her dissertation “Junksonian Fiction” (4). According to Doe, “one may sluggishly sit in bed, skim Junk’s ‘fiction,’ and still be able to see the correlations” (4). Doe argues that Jim Conway of “Encounters, Inc” resembles Junk in that he is a recent graduate of Indiana University, Purdue University-Fort Wayne, works as a copywriter at a software company while aspiring to publish novels and short stories, and “has an ear for noticing things like residue being a poor choice of word” to describe a coffee house (16). Doe also compares Tom of this same story to Junk, citing the nearly identical childhoods of “both men who grew up on Union Chapel Road and routinely ran the previously undeveloped roads north of Fort Wayne” (29). She gives special attention to the character of Russell Arden in “The Fire Hoarder” who, Doe asserts, is “a carbon-copy of the author” (58). “Both men have brothers, run the Bicentennial Trails, and read without ceasing. And Russell like Junk is magnetic, elusive, and determined” (59). Though some readers may deny any semblance of similarity between Junk, Jim, Tom or Russell, Doe insists that Zack of “Smoking Buddha” bears “irrefutable likeness to Junk” (59). “For pity’s sake,” she writes, “it is as if the author has written a memoir, not a work of short fiction. The very apartment in which Zack lives is identical to Junk’s current home. One can envision the fireplace and claw-foot tub in Junk’s bathroom when reading how Zack cloisters himself in this space following the mysterious disappearance of the satyr statue” (62).

While Doe’s arguments are not without merit, it is easy to fully disagree with her explorations of Junk’s fiction, which, to a large degree, rely upon dichotomized concepts of author and character, whereby narrow constructions of one often replace the other. In Doe’s mind, the author who does not wish to be judged according to the strengths and weakness of his or her characters should remain wholly separate, lending no real trait or quality to the fictive individuals. Sadly, Doe’s analysis overlooks the host of canonical authors, including the Father of English Poetry, who have recreated themselves into quasi-fictional characters. Though, in life, Chaucer was a shrewd man with a cunning eye for human drama, he presents himself in The Canterbury Tales as a humble pilgrim and a doughy, mediocre poet. One might argue, therefore, that Junk’s characters are but shadows of the author—perhaps nobler or darker, more cynical manifestations of the real man.

Meghann Basset
Olivia Roberts holds to this opinion, arguing that critics like Doe, who vainly undertake needle-in-the-haystack quests to discern fact from fiction, too often explore correlations between author and character identities in reductive and deterministic ways (3). She suggests that the brilliance of “Encounters, Inc” or “The Fire Hoarder” is that they do not treat pure fiction as superior to fact; rather, the enduring brilliance of Junk’s work is that it elicits questions of reality but offers no answers. “The characters are provocative in that they may be real; more importantly, however, his stories simply provide complex depictions of male characters without judgment” (89). Like any creature that can never be wholly understood through an examination of its mere parts, Junk presents his characters as unknowable, mysterious entities that cannot be defined via any single analysis. The same may be said of Junk himself who defies definitive identification with any isolated character.

The beauty of Junk’s work is that he offers enough of himself to his characters to give them life, but rather than constrain those characters to conform to him, he lets them evolve into non-Junksonian individuals. Russell of ‘The Fire Hoarder’ may be Junk, the guy next door, or Heathcliff; the important thing is that he is a credible character—one for whom the reader, true to life, simultaneously feels sympathy and revulsion (Roberts 36).

As Roberts has noted, Junk’s stories frequently have an inscrutable quality that defies easy classification. Many have argued that Junk’s stories are too long to be categorized as short fiction. In fact, because of the seemingly tangential digressions in the form of dialogues dealing with evil and freedom and capitalism that pervade Junk’s fiction, his stories have been described as less fiction than a handbook or treatise (Queequeg 106). These long philosophical sections have rendered Junk’s stories unpopular among certain audiences. One anonymous blogger writes, “I’d rather suffer through War and Peace for the third time than read one of Junk’s lengthy ‘West Central Stories.’” Discerning readers, however, have recognized such digressions as central to understanding Junk’s art. In his assessment of “The Fire Hoarder,” Michael Franklin contends that these “digressions” reveal Junk’s technical skill as an author and his determination to expose audiences to more than mere entertainment. More significantly, they illuminate Junk’s attempts to understand that which is spiritual via analysis of the physical world (Franklin 204). Eliza Ghann, however, more insightfully argues that Junk’s characters question all things in order that the reader, not the author, may be the one to undergo self-exploration (39). In her second of three essays analyzing the works of Junk, Ghann writes:

Junk’s stories are quite thought-provoking. Many of Junk’s characters appear to go mad: they abandon themselves to endless, overpowering sex, fits of horrific violence, and Thoreauvian reclusiveness in the woods. Initially, the reader is disinclined to like these defectors of society. Slowly, however, Junk induces his readers to begrudgingly sympathize with each protagonist as he undergoes transformation from a conforming adult to a mad, but free, man. In so doing, the reader begins to question cultural concepts of conformity and reality (40).

Ghann points to a particular passage in “The Fire Hoarder” in which Russell, dissatisfied with the dull contentment of those around him as well as their narrow misconceptions of who he is, ponders what it would mean to have the freedom to “live [his] days on [his] own terms,” to throw off the imposed role others have given him (41). Because Russell has a tendency to speak his mind, loudly and without reservation, he is labeled insensitive. Yet he imagines a life in which he does not have to prove or disprove such judgments, a life in which he could with comfort and acceptance “do anything—even die—and people would barely notice.” Following his conversation with Ray, Russell appears to grow more calloused and self-absorbed. Though “madness” has been slowly creeping upon him, the turning point occurs in the old junkyard. Once he commits murder, Russell entirely cuts himself off from family and friends without a word of explanation. But as he exits one world, he slips into another—a hazy place of effigies and hallucinations where he imagines his ex-girlfriend loves him still. According to Ghann, Russell’s story is a tragedy of love, yet she acknowledges that “tragedy isn’t quite the right word” (42). “His story appears a tragedy only to those left behind. To Russell, his death is a triumph. As the decrepit house is engulfed in flames, Russell is reunited with his heart’s desire: Vicki. It matters not whether that union is real or imagined” (45). It is certainly a curiosity that many have futilely sought to distinguish the real Junk from the fictional Junk in a story in which the author urges his readers to recognize that reality is often a mere construction, that past and present can strangely fuse, that no one fully knows Russell, not even Russell himself.  

It may be argued that Zack, unlike Russell, may not be appropriately called free, at least not free in the traditional sense of the word. By the end of the story, he has been shackled by a new burden—be it an oppressive ghost or the natural consequences of unkind thoughts and actions; nevertheless, he has also been liberated. Like the woman who lived in the carriage house before him, he is no longer bound to perform according to the man-made schedule of an eight-to-five job. Furthermore, he has been set free from his body; as Zack succumbs to the curse of hypothyroidism, the maintenance of his body ceases to be of primary concern. Roberts notes a common theme in Junk’s fiction: the ‘villains’ are often overweight (42).  The woman who annoyingly coughs “ehuh-ehuhm” in “The Smoking Buddha” is described as “terribly obese” and pillowed by her own fat. Tom is hounded by a “walking barrel,” and Russell is attacked by a man who is “massive in a way that less intimidating than pitiable.” Though some scholars have argued that Junk is arrogantly insensitive in his criticisms of the misfortunates of others, Roberts claims that Junk’s fiction reveals the opposite: that Junk is highly sensitive and attune to the fact that no man is perfect. “The beautiful and the ugly are seen to plummet in the same vortex of uncertainty” (43). According to Roberts, Junk’s fiction does not pit villain against hero; rather “all of the characters are stunningly vile” (43). Roberts likens Junk’s characters to Sherwood Anderson’s “Book of the Grotesque” wherein some figures are “amusing, some almost beautiful” (Anderson qtd. by Roberts 44).  Like these grotesques, Roberts argues that readers “cannot help but like Junk’s characters, even ‘the barrel’” (45). While Roberts’ claims concerning ‘the barrel’ are questionable, her assessment of Zack, Tom, or Russell is accurate; one does, indeed, feel a degree of compassion for each.

Libby Tessab takes Roberts’ analysis one step further. She equates Russell Arden to Philip Roth’s Mickey Sabbath, noting how both men have known love, yet have chosen to cope with the loss through a seemingly endless cycle of booze and sex. “There’s something pathetically horrifying about Sabbath who expresses his grief through masturbation and the fondling of women’s undergarments. It lacks dignity” (Tessab 99). One might argue that Russell is equally undignified when he shouts “Expecto Patronus” and then crudely comes in the face of a random partner. In fact, of all the characters in Junk’s short fiction, Russell is arguably the most intriguing. Long have critics puzzled over Russell and his undefined madness. Some see a despicable, callous hermit whose miserable death is well deserved; others an “innocent imbecile” who unwittingly murders his own heart. In Tessab’s estimation, Arden is an intellectual junkie, and his quest for the next hit leads him to over the ‘cliffs of insanity’ (nod to The Princess Bride). It may be argued, however, that this seemingly unsavory character has been deftly crafted by Junk to illuminate Roth’s elusive Sabbath.

            At the onset, Russell appears chauvinistic and concerned solely with maintaining his youthful vigor. He expresses his disappointment in close friends and family who have slipped into the mundane and resolves to resist such complacency through intellectual and physical pursuits like learning to identify the trees in the woods where he runs each Saturday morning. As the story progresses, Russell appears to selfishly value such self-advancement over time spent with others. Like Sabbath whose circle of friends increasingly shrinks as a result of his offensive behavior, Russell, who supposedly “has book smarts but … doesn’t have people smarts,” ultimately determines to cut himself off from others. “I piss a lot of people off because I don’t think like them, and because I speak my mind,” he reflects and so he disconnects from the world, letting the angry text messages of girlfriends and his friend, Jason, go unanswered. Slowly the reader begins to understand that sorrow as well as disappointment in himself and others has caused Russell check out long before he willfully (or unwillfully) determines to go off the grid. As he gradually slips into a grief-induced madness, he begins to leave bundles of sticks in the trees at Bicentennial Woods and becomes more obsessed with ritualistically lapping the forest trails in a perfect figure-eight loop, hallucinating on his beloved Vicki as he does so. His efforts to bring back what he himself threw away eerily reflect Sabbath’s ceremonial ejaculations over Drenka’s grave. Like a shaman calling forth spirits, Russell’s and Sabbath’s seemingly undignified actions may be interpreted as the vain incantations of lonely men who seek to conjure up the pleasure of former days. As Roth and Junk teach us, grief knows no limits; it can reduce the strongest and cleverest of men to shriveled masses crying in the mud. And often those who appear most soulless are those who have the greatest capacity to feel. Herein lies the brilliance of Junk’s work and his careful development of the Russell’s dubious character.

            Beyond his talent for creating riveting characters, Junk also excels at weaving together intricate yet thrilling plots. In fact, the story of “The Fire Hoarder” is ultimately revealed to exist within the larger story of “Encounters, Inc.” As Jason explains, Russell’s story has been made available to readers through Jim Conway. In a superb twist of plot, the reader is suddenly transformed from a mere spectator of events to one of Tom’s and Monster-Face’s customers, reading what is exposed to be the fear-building prelude to an excursion to some haunted site, presumably the charred foundations where Russell died. Not only does Junk effectively layer the plots of “Encounters, Inc” and “The Fire Hoarder,” he embellishes the ghost legends of rural Indiana. Whereas such stories tend to be one-dimensional histories of madmen and witches burned alone in their houses by terrified townsfolk, Junk gives flesh to such lore, recasting mythic madmen into compelling protagonists.

While analyses of Junk’s characters abound, less has been written about his prose and style. Thomas Hood writes that "Bedtime Ghost Story for Adults" and "The Smoking Buddha" have several lovely lines, but the conversational style in which the tales are narrated necessitates a more clipped and colloquial syntax. “They are designed to sound like stories told around a camp fire, which Junk effectively achieves. However, in ‘Encounter, Inc’ Junk begins to branch out, and in ‘The Fire Hoarder’ he comes into his own as an unparalleled wordsmith” (Hood 65-66). Hood is not entirely correct in his analysis of Junk’s development. Prior to “Encounters, Inc,” Junk wrote “The Tree Climber,” a story inspired by W.S. Merwin. The poetic impetus behind the story is apparent, for Junk gracefully straddles the boundary between poetry and prose with evocative lines such as “As she rested at last, the breeze blew against her light wash of sweat, setting her skin aglow with the dissipating pulsing heat, like soundless music emanating from her blood into the air, even as she felt her strained limbs shimmer with life, discovered anew through the dancing ache.”

The gorgeous elegance that flows so naturally throughout “The Tree Climber” and “The Fire Hoarder” is slightly more stilted in “Encounters, Inc.” The following sentence, for example, sounds strained:

Here he learned from a diminutive blue-collar, country-music American with an amateur kickboxing record of 40-2 who’d learned karate from a grand master while stationed with the air force in Japan and Wing Chun from a Chinese man he’d partnered with in the states so they could open their own school.

A reader of Junk’s blog pointed out the awkwardness of the sentence and the difficulty for the reader in comprehending its meaning. To this reader, Junk replied that in “narratives the goal is to simulate an experience in real-time ... You want people to read really consequential details more slowly, so you put commas in to get them to pause. With the country-music karate teacher, I wanted to provide a textured background for the main character, but I also wanted that background to be read quickly, because the karate teacher plays a very small role in the story.” What Junk’s defense fails to take into account is how a discordant sentence such as this one is distracting in the otherwise crystalline prose. In other words, his sentences are so well written that a weak sentence stands out like a sore thumb. Junk’s goal of conveying information without lingering over unimportant details backfires. The sentence forces the reader to pause to reread it, thereby exiting the story entirely. Critics have also noted the periodic use of unnecessary adjectives or adverbs that cause some sentences to sound contrived. For example, in “Encounters, Inc” Junk writes, “Finding himself in the middle of the room, his hands held out to check the advance of any attacker, he glared down at the bed with its twisted sheets and undecipherable chaos of mounded folds…” Later in this same paragraph Junk writes, “He stood there long enough to calm his breathing before stepping forward and smoothing the comically disheveled sheets with his palms” Undecipherable is repetitive of chaos, and comically contradicts the tense emotions and events of the scene.

Such cumbersome interruptions are not found in “The Fire Hoarder.”  In this respect, Thomas Hood is right; the true genius of Junk is revealed in his most recent story. The syntactical dexterity with which Junk has written this tale provides the reader with an experience akin to reading a book of poems. The reader is led through vivid scenery that is “at once hectic and peaceful,” to forests where the holocaust of trees stand in an “infinite twilit intricacy of living greens and browns” and the “bereaved relatives still aloft in the branches perform their trembling dirge” for leaves that have fallen. In this regard, Junk’s tales, in particular “The Fire Hoarder,” resemble “All Hallows” by Walter de la Mere. “One can almost hear the stones moving in Junk’s stories” (Roberts 45). His tales are not frightening—although the pitter-patter of little satyr feet is unnerving—rather, the reader is often too captivated by the prose to register fear. This story, more than any other, makes this reader crave the next story from Junk.

It is likely that Junk will continue to perplex audiences with characters patterned after himself, and that scholars, like Jane Doe, will continue their mission to understand this mysterious author through his works. Regardless of the analyses of opposing critics, Junk is an author of extraordinary talent. There is something profoundly lyrical in the cadence of Junk’s prose. His characters, his plots, his brilliant depictions, and his command of language leave him well poised to become the next beloved American author of short stories. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Soul of the Skeptic: What Precisely Is Sam Harris Waking Up from?

(5,484 words. Printable version.)

             Sam Harris believes that we can derive many of the benefits people cite as reasons for subscribing to one religion or another from non-religious practices and modes of thinking, ones that don’t invoke bizarre scriptures replete with supernatural absurdities. In The Moral Landscape, for instance, he attempted to show that we don’t need a divine arbiter to settle our ethical and political disputes because reason alone should suffice. Now, with Waking Up, Harris is taking on an issue that many defenders of Christianity, or religion more generally, have long insisted he is completely oblivious to. By focusing on the truth or verifiability of religious propositions, Harris’s critics charge, he misses the more important point: religion isn’t fundamentally about the beliefs themselves so much as the effects those beliefs have on a community, including the psychological impact on individuals of collective enactments of the associated rituals—feelings of connectedness, higher purpose, and loving concern for all one’s neighbors.

            Harris likes to point out that his scholarly critics simply have a hard time appreciating just how fundamentalist most religious believers really are, and so they turn a blind eye toward the myriad atrocities religion sanctions, or even calls for explicitly. There’s a view currently fashionable among the more politically correct scientists and academics that makes criticizing religious beliefs seem peevish, even misanthropic, because religion is merely something people do, like reading stories or playing games, to imbue their lives with texture and meaning, or to heighten their sense of belonging to a community. According to this view, the particular religion in question—Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Christianity—isn’t as important as the people who subscribe to it, nor do any specific tenets of a given faith have any consequence. That’s why Harris so frequently comes under fire—and is even accused of bigotry—for suggesting things like that the passages in the Koran calling for violence actually matter and that Islam is much more likely to inspire violence because of them.

We can forgive Harris his impatience with this line of reasoning, which leads his critics to insist that violence is in every case politically and never religiously motivated. This argument can only be stated with varying levels of rancor, never empirically supported, and is hence dismissible as a mere article of faith in its own right, one that can’t survive any encounter with the reality of religious violence. Harris knows how important a role politics plays and that it’s often only the fundamentalist subset of the population of believers who are dangerous. But, as he points out, “Fundamentalism is only a problem when the fundamentals are a problem” (2:30:09). It’s only by the lights of postmodern identity politics that an observation this banal could strike so many as so outrageous.

            But what will undoubtedly come as a disappointment to Harris’s more ardently anti-religious readers, and as a surprise to fault-seeking religious apologists, is that from the premise that not all religions are equally destructive and equally absurd follows the conclusion that some religious ideas or practices may actually be beneficial or point the way toward valid truths. Harris has discussed his experiences with spiritual retreats and various forms of  meditation in past works, but now with Waking Up he goes so far as to advocate certain of the ancient contemplative practices he’s experimented with. Has he abandoned his scientific skepticism? Not by any means; near the end of the book, he writes, “As a general matter, I believe we should be very slow to draw conclusions about the nature of the cosmos on the basis of inner experiences—no matter how profound they seem” (192). What he’s doing here, and with the book as a whole, is underscoring the distinction between religious belief on the one hand and religious experience on the other.

Acknowledging that some practices which are nominally religious can be of real value, Harris goes on to argue that we need not accept absurd religious doctrines to fully appreciate them. And this is where the subtitle of his book, A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, comes from. As paradoxical as this concept may seem to people of faith, Harris cites a survey finding that 20% of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (6). And he argues that separating the two terms isn’t just acceptable; it’s logically necessary.

Spirituality must be distinguished from religion—because people of every faith, and of none, have the same sorts of spiritual experiences. While these states of mind are usually interpreted through the lens of one or another religious doctrine, we know this is a mistake. Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience—self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light—constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work. (9)

People of faith frequently respond to the criticism that their beliefs fly in the face of logic and evidence by claiming they simply know God is real because they have experiences that can only be attributed to a divine presence. Any failure on the part of skeptics to acknowledge the lived reality of such experiences makes their arguments all the more easily dismissible as overly literal or pedantic, and it makes the skeptics themselves come across as closed-minded and out-of-touch.

            On the other hand, Harris’s suggestion of a “deeper principle” underlying religious experiences smacks of New Age thinking at its most wooly. For one thing, church authorities often condemn, excommunicate, or execute congregants with mystical leanings for their heresy. (Harris cites a few examples.) But the deeper principle Harris is referring to isn’t an otherworldly one. And he’s perfectly aware of the unfortunate connotations the words he uses often carry:

I share the concern, expressed by many atheists, that the terms spiritual and mystical are often used to make claims not merely about the quality of certain experiences but about reality at large. Far too often, these words are invoked in support of religious beliefs that are morally and intellectually grotesque. Consequently, many of my fellow atheists consider all talk of spirituality to be a sign of mental illness, conscious imposture, or self-deception. This is a problem, because millions of people have had experiences for which spiritual and mystical seem the only terms available. (11)

You can’t expect people to be convinced their religious beliefs are invalid when your case rests on a denial of something as perfectly real to them as their own experiences. And it’s difficult to make the case that these experiences must be separated from the religious claims they’re usually tied to while refusing to apply the most familiar labels to them, because that comes awfully close to denying their legitimacy.

            Throughout Waking Up, Harris focuses on one spiritual practice in particular, a variety of meditation that seeks to separate consciousness from any sense of self, and he argues that the insights one can glean from experiencing this rift are both personally beneficial and neuroscientifically sound. Certain Hindu and Buddhist traditions hold that the self is an illusion, a trick of the mind, and our modern scientific understanding of the mind, Harris argues, corroborates this view. By default, most of us think of the connection between our minds and our bodies dualistically; we believe we have a spirit, a soul, or some other immaterial essence that occupies and commands our physical bodies. Even those of us who profess not to believe in any such thing as a soul have a hard time avoiding a conception of the self as a unified center of consciousness, a homunculus sitting at the controls. Accordingly, we attach ourselves to our own thoughts and perceptions—we identify with them. Since it seems we’re programmed to agonize over past mistakes and worry about impending catastrophes, we can’t help feeling the full brunt of a constant barrage of negative thoughts. Most of us recognize the sentiment Harris expresses in writing that “It seems to me that I spend much of my life in a neurotic trance” (11). And this is precisely the trance we need to wake up from.

            To end the spiraling chain reaction of negative thoughts and foul feelings, we must detach ourselves from our thinking, and to do this, Harris suggests, we must recognize that there is no us doing the thinking. The “I” in the conventional phrasing “I think” or “I feel” is nowhere to be found. Is it in our brains? Which part? Harris describes the work of the Nobel laureate neuroscientist Roger Sperry, who in the 1950s did a series a fascinating experiments with split-brain patients, so called because the corpus callosum, the bundle of fibers connecting the two hemispheres of their brains, had been surgically severed to reduce the severity of epileptic seizures. Sperry found that he could present instructions to the patients’ left visual fields—which would only be perceived by the right hemisphere—and induce responses that the patients themselves couldn’t explain, because language resides predominantly in the left hemisphere. When asked to justify their behavior, though, the split-brain patients gave no indication that they had no idea why they were doing what they’d been instructed to do. Instead, they confabulated answers. For instance, if the right hemisphere is instructed to pick up an egg from among an assortment of objects on a table, the left hemisphere may explain the choice by saying something like, “Oh, I picked it because I had eggs for breakfast yesterday.”
            As weird as this type of confabulation may seem, it has still weirder implications. At any given moment, it’s easy enough for us to form intentions and execute plans for behavior. But where do those intentions really come from? And how can we be sure our behaviors reflect the intentions we believe they reflect? We are only ever aware of a tiny fraction of our minds’ operations, so it would be all too easy for us to conclude we are the ones in charge of everything we do even though it’s really someone—or something else behind the scenes pulling the strings. The reason split-brain patients so naturally confabulate about their motives is that the language centers of our brains probably do it all the time, even when our corpus callosa are intact. We are only ever dimly aware of our true motivations, and likely completely in the dark about them as often as not. Whenever we attempt to explain ourselves, we’re really just trying to make up a plausible story that incorporates all the given details, one that makes sense both to us and to anyone listening.

            If you’re still not convinced that the self is an illusion, try to come up with a valid justification for locating the self in either the left or the right hemisphere of split-brain patients. You may be tempted to attribute consciousness, and hence selfhood, to the hemisphere with the capacity for language. But you can see for yourself how easy it is to direct your attention away from words and fill your consciousness solely with images or wordless sounds. Some people actually rely on their right hemispheres for much of their linguistic processing, and after split-brain surgery these people can speak for the right hemisphere with things like cards that have written words on them. We’re forced to conclude that both sides of the split brain are conscious. And, since the corpus callosum channels a limited amount of information back and forth in the brain, we probably all have at least two independent centers of consciousness in our minds, even those of us whose hemispheres communicate.

What this means is that just because your actions and intentions seem to align, you still can’t be sure there isn’t another conscious mind housed in your brain who is also assured its own actions and intentions are aligned. There have even been cases where the two sides of a split-brain patient’s mind have expressed conflicting beliefs and desires. For some, phenomena like these sound the death knell for any dualistic religious belief. Harris writes,

Consider what this says about the dogma—widely held under Christianity and Islam—that a person’s salvation depends upon her believing the right doctrine about God. If a split-brain patient’s left hemisphere accepts the divinity of Jesus, but the right doesn’t, are we to imagine that she now harbors two immortal souls, one destined for the company of angels and the other for an eternity of hellfire? (67-8)

Indeed, the soul, the immaterial inhabitant of the body, can be divided more than once. Harris makes this point using a thought experiment originally devised by philosopher Derek Parfit. Imagine you are teleported Star Trek-style to Mars. The teleporter creates a replica of your body, including your brain and its contents, faithful all the way down to the orientation of the atoms. So everything goes black here on Earth, and then you wake up on Mars exactly as you left. But now imagine something went wrong on Earth and the original you wasn’t destroyed before the replica was created. In that case, there would be two of you left whole and alive. Which one is the real you? There’s no good basis for settling the question one way or the other.

            Harris uses the split-brain experiments and Parfit’s thought experiment to establish the main insight that lies at the core of the spiritual practices he goes on to describe: that the self, as we are programmed to think of and experience it, doesn’t really exist. Of course, this is only true in a limited sense. In many contexts, it’s still perfectly legitimate to speak of the self. As Harris explains,

The self that does not survive scrutiny is the subject of experience in each present moment—the feeling of being a thinker of thoughts inside one’s head, the sense of being an owner or inhabitant of a physical body, which this false self seems to appropriate as a kind of vehicle. Even if you don’t believe such a homunculus exists—perhaps because you believe, on the basis of science, that you are identical to your body and brain rather than a ghostly resident therein—you almost certainly feel like an internal self in almost every waking moment. And yet, however one looks for it, this self is nowhere to be found. It cannot be seen amid the particulars of experience, and it cannot be seen when experience itself is viewed as a totality. However, its absence can be found—and when it is, the feeling of being a self disappears. (92)

The implication is that even if you come to believe as a matter of fact that the self is an illusion you nevertheless continue to experience that illusion. It’s only under certain circumstances, or as a result of engaging in certain practices, that you’ll be able to experience consciousness in the absence of self.

            Harris briefly discusses avenues apart from meditation that move us toward what he calls “self-transcendence”: we often lose ourselves in our work, or in a good book or movie; we may feel a diminishing of self before the immensities of nature and the universe, or as part of a drug-induced hallucination; or it could be attendance at a musical performance where you’re just one tiny part of a vast pulsing crowd of exuberant fans. It could be during intense sex. Or you may of course also experience some fading away of your individuality through participation in religious ceremonies. But Harris’s sights are set on one specific method for achieving self-transcendence. As he writes in his introduction,

This book is by turns a seeker’s memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives: the feeling of self we call “I.” I have not set out to describe all the traditional approaches to spirituality and to weigh their strengths and weaknesses. Rather, my goal is to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion. There is a diamond there, and I have devoted a fair amount of my life to contemplating it, but getting it in hand requires that we remain true to the deepest principles of scientific skepticism and make no obeisance to tradition. (10)

This is music to the ears of many skeptics who have long suspected that there may actually be something to meditative techniques but are overcome with fits of eye-rolling every time they try to investigate the topic. If someone with skeptical bona fides as impressive as Harris’s has taken the time to wade through all the nonsense to see if there are any worthwhile takeaways, then I imagine I’m far from alone in being eager to find out what he’s discovered.

            So how does one achieve a state of consciousness divorced from any sense of self? And how does this experience help us escape the neurotic trance most of us are locked in? Harris describes some of the basic principles of Advaita, a Hindu practice, and Dzogchen, a Tibetan Buddhist one. According to Advaita, one can achieve “cessation”—an end to thinking, and hence to the self—at any stage of practice. But Dzogchen practitioners insist it comes only after much intense practice. In one of several inset passages with direct instructions to readers, Harris invites us to experiment with the Dzogchen technique of imagining a moment in our lives when we felt positive emotions, like the last time we accomplished something we’re proud of. After concentrating on the thoughts and feelings for some time, we are then encouraged to think of a time when we felt something negative, like embarrassment or fear. The goal here is to be aware of the ideas and feelings as they come into being. “In the teachings of Dzogchen,” Harris writes, “it is often said that thoughts and emotions arise in consciousness the way that images appear on the surface of the mirror.” Most of the time, though, we are tricked into mistaking the mirror for what’s reflected in it.

In subjective terms, you are consciousness itself—you are not the next, evanescent image or string of words that appears in your mind. Not seeing it arise, however, the next thought will seem to become what you are. (139)

This is what Harris means when he speaks of separating your consciousness from your thoughts. And he believes it’s a state of mind you can achieve with sufficient practice calling forth and observing different thoughts and emotions, until eventually you experience—for moments at a time—a feeling of transcending the self, which entails a ceasing of thought, a type of formless and empty awareness that has us sensing a pleasant unburdening of the weight of our identities.

            Harris also describes a more expeditious route to selflessness, one discovered by a British Architect named Douglas Harding, who went on to be renowned among New Agers for his insight. His technique, which was first inspired by a drawing made by physicist Ernst Mach that was a literal rendition of his first-person viewpoint, including the side of his nose and the ridge of his eyebrow, consists simply of trying to imagine you have no head. Harris quotes at length from Harding’s description of what happened when he originally succeeded:

What actually happened was something absurdly simply and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, an odd kind of alert limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animal-hood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, the present moment and what was clearly given it. (143) 

Harris recommends a slight twist to this approach—one that involves looking out at the world and simply trying to reverse your perspective to look for your head. One way to do this is to imagine you’re talking to another person and then “let your attention travel in the direction of the other person’s gaze” (145). It’s not about trying to picture what you look like to another person; it’s about recognizing that your face is absent from the encounter—because obviously you can’t see it. “But looking for yourself in this way can precipitate a sudden change in perspective, of the sort Harding describes” (146). It’s a sort of out-of-body experience.

            If you pull off the feat of seeing through the illusion of self, either through disciplined practice at observing the contents of your own consciousness or through shortcuts like imagining you have no head, you will experience a pronounced transformation. Even if for only a few moments, you will have reached enlightenment. As a reward for your efforts, you will enjoy a temporary cessation of the omnipresent hum of anxiety-inducing thoughts that you hardly even notice drowning out so much of the other elements of your consciousness. “There arose no questions,” Harding writes of his experiments in headlessness, “no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden” (143). Skeptics reading these descriptions will have to overcome the temptation to joke about practitioners without a thought in their head.

            Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all based on dualistic conceptions of the self, and the devout are enjoined to engage in ritual practices in service to God, an entirely separate being. The more non-dualistic philosophies of the East are much more amenable to attempts to reconcile them with science. Practices like meditation aren’t directed at any supernatural entity but are engaged in for their own sake, because they are somehow inherently rewarding. Unfortunately, this leads to a catch-22. Harris explains,

As we have seen, there are good reasons to believe that adopting a practice like meditation can lead to positive changes in one’s life. But the deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self—and to seek such freedom, as though it were a future state to be attained through effort, is to reinforce the chains of one’s apparent bondage in each moment. (123)

This paradox seems at first like a good recommendation for the quicker routes to self-transcendence like Harding’s. But, according to Harris, “Harding confessed that many of his students recognized the state of ‘headlessness’ only to say, ‘So what?’” To Harris, the problem here is that the transformation was so easily achieved that its true value couldn’t be appreciated:

Unless a person has spent some time seeking self-transcendence dualistically, she is unlikely to recognize that the brief glimpse of selflessness is actually the answer to her search. Having then said, ‘So what?’ in the face of the highest teachings, there is nothing for her to do but persist in her confusion. (148)

We have to wonder, though, if maybe Harding’s underwhelmed students aren’t the ones who are confused. It’s entirely possible that Harris, who has devoted so much time and effort to his quest for enlightenment, is overvaluing the experience to assuage his own cognitive dissonance.

             The penultimate chapter of Waking Up gives Harris’s more skeptical fans plenty to sink their teeth into, including a thorough takedown of neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s so-called Proof of Heaven and several cases of supposedly enlightened gurus taking advantage of their followers by, among other exploits, sleeping with their wives. But Harris claims his own experiences with gurus have been almost entirely positive, and he goes as far as recommending that anyone hoping to achieve self-transcendence seek out the services of one. 

            This is where I began to have issues with the larger project behind Harris’s book. If meditation were a set of skills like those required to play tennis, it would seem more reasonable to claim that the guidance of an expert coach is necessary to develop them. But what is a meditation guru supposed to do if he (I presume they’re mostly male) has no way to measure, or even see, your performance? Harris suggests they can answer questions that arise during practice, but apart from basic instructions like the ones Harris himself provides it seems unlikely an expert could be of much help. If a guru has a useful technique, he shouldn’t need to be present in the room to share it. Harding passed his technique on to Harris through writing for instance. And if self-transcendence is as dramatic a transformation as it’s made out to be, you shouldn’t have any trouble recognizing it when you experience it.

            Harris’s valuation of the teachings he’s received from his own gurus really can’t be sifted from his impression of how rewarding his overall efforts at exploring spirituality have been, nor can it be separated from his personal feelings toward those gurus. This a problem that plagues much of the research on the effectiveness of various forms of psychotherapy; essentially, a patient’s report that the therapeutic treatment was successful means little else but that the patient had a positive relationship with the therapist administering it. Similarly, it may be the case that Harris’s sense of how worthwhile those moments of self-transcendence are has more than he's himself aware of to do with his personal retrospective assessment of how fulfilling his own journey to reach them has been. The view from Everest must be far more sublime to those who’ve made the climb than to those who were airlifted to the top.

            More troublingly, there’s an unmistakable resemblance between, on the one hand, Harris’s efforts to locate convergences between science and contemplative religious practices and, on the other, the tendency of New Age philosophers to draw specious comparisons between ancient Eastern doctrines and modern theories in physics. Zen koans are paradoxical and counterintuitive, this line of reasoning goes, and so are the results of the double-slit experiment in quantum mechanics—the Buddhists must have intuited something about the quantum world centuries ago. Dzogchen Buddhists have believed the self is an illusion and have been seeking a cessation of thinking for centuries, and modern neuroscience demonstrates that the self is something quite different from what most of us think it is. Therefore, the Buddhists must have long ago discovered something essential about the mind. In both of these examples, it seems like you have to do a lot of fudging to make the ancient doctrines line up with the modern scientific findings.

            It’s not nearly as evident as Harris makes out that what the Buddhists mean by the doctrine that the self is an illusion is the same thing neuroscientists mean when they point out that consciousness is divisible, or that we’re often unaware of our own motivations. (Douglas Hofstadter refers to the self as an epiphenomenon, which he does characterize as a type of illusion, but only because the overall experience bears so little resemblance to any of the individual processes that go in to producing it.) I’ve never heard a cognitive scientist discuss the fallacy of identifying with your own thoughts or recommend that we try to stop thinking. Indeed, I don’t think most people really do identify with their thoughts. I for one don’t believe I am my thoughts; I definitely feel like I have my thoughts, or that I do my thinking. To point out that thoughts sometimes arise in my mind independent of my volition does nothing to undermine this belief. And Harris never explains exactly why seeing through the illusion of the self should bring about relief from all the anxiety produced by negative thinking. Cessation sounds a little like simply rendering yourself insensate.

The problem that brings about the neurotic trance so many of us find ourselves trapped in doesn’t seem to be that people fall for the trick of selfhood; it’s that they mistake their most neurotic thinking at any given moment for unquestionable and unchangeable reality. Clinical techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy involve challenging your own thinking, and there’s relief to be had in that—but it has nothing to do with disowning your thoughts or seeing your self as illusory. From this modern cognitive perspective, Dzogchen practices that have us focusing our attention on the effects of different lines of thinking are probably still hugely beneficial. But what’s that go to do with self-transcendence?

            For that matter, is the self really an illusion? Insofar as we think of it as a single object or as something that can be frozen in time and examined, it is indeed illusory. But calling the self an illusion is bit like calling music an illusion. It’s impossible to point to music as existing in any specific location. You can separate a song into constituent elements that all on their own still constitute music. And of course you can create exact replicas of songs and play them on other planets. But it’s pretty silly to conclude from all these observations that music isn’t real. Rather, music, like the self, is a confluence of many diverse processes that can only be experienced in real time. In claiming that neuroscience corroborates the doctrine that the self is an illusion, Harris may be failing at the central task he set for himself by making too much obeisance to tradition. 

            What about all those reports from people like Harding who have had life-changing experiences while meditating or imagining they have no head? I can attest that I immediately recognized what Harding was describing in the sections Harris quotes. For me, it happened about twenty minutes into a walk I’d gone on through my neighborhood to help me come up with an idea for a short story. I tried to imagine myself as an unformed character at the outset of an as-yet-undeveloped plot. After only a few moments of this, I had a profound sense of stepping away from my own identity, and the attendant feeling of liberation from the disappointments and heartbreaks of my past, from the stresses of the present, and from my habitual forebodings about the future was both revelatory and exhilarating. Since reading Waking Up, I’ve tried both Harding’s and Harris’s approaches to reaching this state again quite a few times. But, though the results have been more impactful than the “So what?” response of Harding’s least impressed students, I haven’t experienced anything as seemingly life-altering as I did on that walk, forcing me to suspect it had as much to do with my state of mind prior to the experiment as it did with the technique itself.

            For me, the experience was of stepping away from my identity—or of seeing the details of that identity from a much broader perspective—than it was of seeing through some illusion of self. I became something like a stem cell version of myself, drastically more pluripotent, more free. It felt much more like disconnecting from my own biography than like disconnecting from the center of my consciousness. This may seem like a finicky distinction. But it goes to the core of Harris’s project—the notion that there’s a convergence between ancient meditative practices and our modern scientific understanding of consciousness. And it bears on just how much of that ancient philosophy we really need to get into if we want to have these kinds of spiritual experiences.

            Personally, I’m not at all convinced by Harris’s case on behalf of pared down Buddhist philosophy and the efficacy of guru guidance—though I probably will continue to experiment with the meditation techniques he lays out. Waking Up, it must be noted, is really less of a guide to spirituality without religion than it is a guide to one particular, particularly esoteric, spiritual practice. But, despite these quibbles, I give the book my highest recommendation, and that’s because its greatest failure is also its greatest success. Harris didn’t even come close to helping me stop thinking—or even persuading me that I should try—because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about his book ever since I started reading it. Perhaps what I appreciate most about Waking Up, though, is that it puts the lie to so many idiotic ideas people tend to have about skeptics and atheists. Just as recognizing that to do what’s right we must sometimes resist the urgings of our hearts in no way makes us heartless, neither does understanding that to be steadfast in pursuit of truth we must admit there’s no such thing as an immortal soul in any way make us soulless. And, while many associate skepticism with closed-mindedness, most of the skeptics I know of are true seekers, just like Harris. The crucial difference, which Harris calls “the sine qua non of the scientific attitude,” is “between demanding good reasons for what one believes and being satisfied with bad ones” (199).